The first copper coins of the new United States Mint struck for general circulation were the 1793 Chain Cents. These historic coins also had the unpleasant distinction of being the first American design subjected to intense public ridicule.
Abuse of some kind greeted nearly all new U.S. coin designs over the next 200 years, but the fledgling Philadelphia Mint was not ready for it in 1793. It was not that Mint personnel were unusually sensitive, but the criticisms echoed in the halls of Congress, where calls for abolishing the Mint entirely were soon heard, made them question their prospects for continued employment.
Adding to the Mint’s woes was the lack of decent steel for desperately needed coinage dies, a shortage of quality copper and the rickety and unreliable rollers needed to flatten copper into sheets. Working hours were brutal, though a daily rum ration eased some of the pain. More frightening and disruptive was the annual outbreak of seemingly inescapable yellow fever that paralyzed Philadelphia in the late summer months, sending its affluent residents fleeing to the countryside. The poor had no such escape, and the death rate was alarming.
Despite these obstacles, a quick change of the cent design seemed desirable, and Mint Director David Rittenhouse first told die engraver Adam Eckfeldt to delete the offending chains from the reverse. He retained the flowing-hair Liberty head which had caused the Pennsylvania Gazette to report in March of 1793 that “Liberty appears to be in a fright.”
Unknown to newspaper writers of the era, the first Liberty heads were actually inspired by French medalist Augustin Dupre’s elegant Libertas Americana medal, a public relations effort of American statesman Benjamin Franklin. Struck by the Paris Mint in 1783 to hail American victories in the Revolution, the medal’s handsome Liberty displayed streaming locks symbolizing freedom.
The new Liberty head had long, separate locks blowing even more wildly than those on the Chain coins. The new reverse presented an elegant wreath of elongated leaves resembling laurel, the ancient symbol of victory. Just above the heavy bow appear three-part leaves or trefoils suggesting cotton or even maple leaves. Thrusting outward are hair-thin stems bearing three or four tiny round berries wholly unlike laurel. Later large cents all bear undeniably laurel wreaths with their large round berries, but no one knows for sure just what plant or plants Rittenhouse was depicting in 1793 on his obverses or reverses. It is possible that the aged scientist had a composite in mind for his elegant wreath, but the truth may never be known. A small fraction 1/100 appears below the bow, a reminder to most Americans then living that the new nation’s coinage was decimal. Another reminder appeared on the edges of some varieties, the incuse message ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR, followed by either one or two leaves. A third edge type is the ornate Vine and Bars design, and the Sheldon 11 variety is known with all three edges!
The great copper cataloguer Dr. William H. Sheldon divided the Flowing Hair Wreath cents into nine varieties that are within collectors’ reach and four varieties termed NC or “Non-Collectible”. NC varieties are scattered among all early cent dates and are the dream of many a sharp-eyed copper specialist. All varieties but one show a three-leaf laurel-like sprig of varied shape just above the date. The exception is NC-5, the “Strawberry leaf” rarity. On Sheldon varieties S-5, 6 and 7 this sprig is well designed and outspread; on S-8 and 9 it shows a stem following the curvature of the date with upright leaves. S-10 has an oddly stemless sprig with three skinny, angular leaves, and the three S-11 coins show a sprig “windblown” toward the right. Perhaps four or five low-grade examples of the ultra-rare “Strawberry Leaf” (NC-2 and NC-3) exist today. Discovered before 1869 by pioneer copper collector Richard Winsor, this rarity was first called the “Clover Leaf.” Here again, no one knows with absolute certainty what plant was intended by die sinker Eckfeldt or even why such a visible change was attempted.
Philadelphia Mint records show that 63,353 Wreath cents were struck. Many were saved, probably as curiosities and also by British collectors. Possibly 6% or 7% of the mintage survives today, most in very low grades. As many as 40 pieces may exist in Extremely Fine-40 through Mint State-70. One actual MS-70 example of Sheldon 5 is recognized by the Early American Copper Society (EAC), originally in the William Cutler Atwater collection sold by the colorful B. Max Mehl in 1945. This coin is remarkably well centered and appears to have been struck on a polished planchet, possibly as a presentation piece, not unlike several other specimens from the collections of Dr. Sheldon and George Clapp. Although the points that will first show wear are Liberty’s hair at the forehead and left of her ear and the leaves of the wreath, surfaces and color are important in ascertaining higher grades. Many specialists adhere to standards agreed on by the EAC.
Assembling a collection of all varieties other than the NC’s is a reasonable goal if the buyer does not insist on all mint state examples. Collecting all varieties, including the NC’s is virtually impossible, though discovery of unknown specimens in the past has had a way of making rare, though collectible coins out of Non-Collectibles.
More concentrated study has been lavished on early large cents than on any other U.S. series of any era. The body of specialized literature is immense, and specialty clubs exist to nurture such collecting. Because of the dedication of cataloguers such as Sylvester S. Crosby, J.N.T. Levick, Edouard Frossard, David Proskey and Francis Doughty in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Dr. William H. Sheldon in recent times, the early large cents and particularly the 1793-94 issues are well charted. Today’s collector need not immerse himself in this field, however, to get a good overview of it and assemble a creditable collection.
In the summer of 1793, Rittenhouse appointed portraitist Joseph Wright acting engraver and assigned him the task of making new die punches for the cent. Wright died of yellow fever in September, but not before completing his new Liberty Cap design. This beautiful cent would replace the Wreath design, making its debut in the fall of 1793.
PHOTO PROOF – Copyright © 1994-2014 Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. All rights reserved.