The First U.S. Mint
by John Barber and Kathy Lawrence
The following article covers the material that John Barber presented during his program “U.S. Cents – First to Last” at the November 2007 meeting of the Dallas Coin Club.
U.S. Cents – First to Last by John Barber and Kathy Lawrence
Prior to the establishment of the first U.S. Mint in 1792 in Philadelphia, an unworkable mixture of coinage from other countries circulated in the United States, as well as privately-issued tokens. The primary coin in circulation was the British half penny and most of those were not even genuine! There were many counterfeits that
were produced in Britain and the United States. Tokens were struck in Britain for merchants in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.
When the United States began producing coins in 1793, the country consisted of the thirteen original colonies as well as Vermont and Kentucky. According to the first United States census, conducted in 1790, the population of the United States was four million people.
1790 Census- Market Street, Philadelphia, PA
The timelines of the United States cent may be broken down as follows:
• Pre-Federal - before 1787
• Large Cent - 1793-1857
• Small Cent (copper-nickel) - 1857-1864
• Small Cent (bronze) – 1864-1982
• Small Cent (zinc) – 1982-2009…
During the Pre-Federal period, there were several noteworthy events. Vermont was the first state to issue coinage and they produced several different varieties beginning in 1785 that were worth one copper. The Massachusetts half cents and large cents of 1787 were the first coins in the United States to use the word “cent”. The tokens issued by merchants Talbot, Allum & Lee beginning in 1794 contained the word “cent”.
It is important to note that Britain issued “penny” coins, but the coins issued in the United States are properly known as “cents”.
The first federally authorized circulating copper was the Fugio cent of 1787. It was privately struck by James Jarvis through a contract with the U.S. Congress. Benjamin Franklin has been credited with recommending several of the design elements of the Fugio cent, so the coin is sometimes referred to as the Franklin cent.
In 1793, the first issue of the United States Mint was produced- the Chain cent. They were manufactured for two weeks in March 1793 and approximately 30,000 coins were produced. According to reports in the Philadelphia newspapers of the time, the Chain cents were not well-received. Many did not like the representation of Miss Liberty and believed that she had a frightened look on her face. Others felt that the use of chains was a bad omen because the country had only recently been released from Britain’s bondage.
Accordingly, the design was changed during 1793 and approximately 60,000 Wreath cents were produced. William H. Sheldon noted several different die varieties of Wreath cents in his seminal work, Penny Whimsy. Unfortunately for the new U.S. Mint, the public objected to that design as well. Many did not like that representation of Miss Liberty either.
Therefore, yet a third design was used in 1793 and Liberty Cap cents were issued. There are many varieties of the Liberty Cap cents as well. The engraver, Joseph Wright, died of yellow fever before the dies could be completed. It has been hypothesized that improperly stored dies may have led to the dies rusting. The pimpling around 4:00 on the Sheldon 13 variety may be evidence of that rust.
A fourth type of coin was also struck in 1793- the Liberty Cap (head facing right) half cent. Approximately thirty to sixty cents at maximum could be produced a minute with the screw press.
The first U.S. Mint experienced many problems during its early years. There was little support and the money approved to pay the staff was very limited, which led to staff turnover. Also, during the early years of the Philadelphia mint, there were yellow fever epidemics which led to the Mint being closed for several months of the year. Many of the employees died of yellow fever.
Thomas Jefferson considered a nation’s ability to strike coinage as a “key attribute of sovereignty”. The SOHO Mint in Britain under Matthew Boulton supplied half cent and cent planchets to the U.S. Mint.
The famous American artist, Gilbert Stuart, provided design ideas to Robert Scott for the Draped Bust large cent (1796-1807). The design for the Classic Head large cent (1808-1814) came from John Reich who had initially immigrated to the United States as an indentured servant, but performed the lion’s share of the engraving work at the Mint for a decade.
Although ten denominations of coins were authorized in 1792, 85% of the actual production through 1832 consisted of cents and half dollars.
After the end of the first U.S. Mint, Congress was willing to invest money when it was time to build a new facility. By 1830, the United States population had risen to thirteen million people.
The second U.S. Mint location in Philadelphia (1833-1901) produced the first steam coinage. In March 1836, the U.S. Mint issued a medal designed by Christian Gobrecht. They continued to produce the medals into the 1960’s and they could be purchased from the U.S. Mint. There are planchet variations that allow the originals to be identified.
Several varieties of Liberty Head cents (1816-1857) were produced. The Matron Head cent (1816-1836) was designed by Robert Scot or John Reich. From 1837-1839, a modified Matron Head cent designed by Christian Gobrecht was struck.
By 1857, the cost of copper and the cost to actually produce the cent had increased and it cost the U.S. Mint more than one cent to produce the coins, so the size of the coin was reduced. Illustrating this transition, pattern coins such as Judd 159a, were produced. The Judd 159a is a reduction of the 1854 Liberty Seated dollar.
Flying Eagle cents were struck from 1856 to 1858. However, the 1856 issues were all pattern coins or proof coins struck for collectors. The Flying Eagle cents were designed by James B. Longacre.
In 1859, the design of the small cent was changed to the
Indian Head cent. Those coins were also designed by James B. Longacre. There are three major varieties of the series; however there are many other varieties within those three main categories as well. Variety 1 consists of a laurel wreath reverse and was only issued in 1859. Variety 2 consists of an oak wreath with shield and was produced from 1860-1864.
The 1859-1864 issues were composed of copper-nickel. Variety 3 involved a change in the metal content to bronze. The Indian Head cents were issued from 1864-1909. By the end of the series, the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint had begun production, so some 1909S Indian Head cents were struck. Although the Denver branch of the U.S. Mint began striking coins in 1906, they did not begin producing cents until 1911.
The 100th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth was celebrated in 1909 and the design of the cent was changed to honor him. Victor David Brenner created the new design. From 1909-1958, the reverse depicted wheat ears. Beginning in 1959, the reverse was changed to the Lincoln Memorial design.
The coins were made of bronze from 1909-1959, other than 1943 when they were composed of zinc-coated steel due to the copper shortage that existed due to World War II. In 1944, the composition was changed back to copper (with 5% zinc) and it remained as such until 1982 when it was changed to copper-plated zinc.
One of the more well-known varieties in the Lincoln cent series is the 1955 double die obverse. However, there are many other collectible varieties as well, including the 1960 small date and large date coins. In 1969, the master die was re-worked and Lincoln’s portrait was reduced in size and the lettering was pulled in from the edge. Similar, but less obvious modifications were made again in the 1990s, and the relief was also lowered again.
In 2009, the 200th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and the 100th Anniversary of the Lincoln cent, four different designs will be issued depicting different stages of Lincoln’s life. The final designs have not been chosen as of this writing. There is much speculation that 2009 will mark the end of production of the one-cent coin in the United States. In recent years, the cost of metal has risen again and it has cost approximately 1.7 cents to produce one cent.
Many changes have taken place since cent production began in the United States in 1793. Public opinion and the cost of production, among other factors, have led to design and size changes as well as changes to the composition. Those changes have created a vast array of collecting possibilities for many generations to come.