Evolution of a Denomination: The Large Cent

Cent coins and half cents were the first to be produced by the United States Mint as stated by the Coinage Act of 1792. Production started in 1793 and from then on, cent coins, large and small, have been a part of United States coinage history.

Continuing our series that follows the evolution of a denomination, we will tackle large cents from their inception to their demise for which the small cent would take over. They would be produced every year from 1793 until 1857 with the exception of 1815 as there was a shortage of copper which prevented planchets from being produced.

Flowing Hair, Chain Reverse (1793)

The first regular coins struck by the United States Mint were 36,103 Chain cents. It is reported that all of these coins were struck in the first twelve days of production at the Mint in Philadelphia. Depending on the source, Henry Voight is credited with designing and engraving the copper cent, but some only claim him as the engraver. Due to the law passed in 1792, the large cent coin was to weigh exactly twice as much as the half-cent, giving the 26-27 millimeter copper 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain Reverse Cent coin a 13.48 weight in grams.

The chain design on the reverse features fifteen interlocking links formed in an unbroken chain. The words “ONE CENT” and the fraction 1/100 are seen directly in the middle of the coin with the chain encircled around them. There are namely three different versions of the Chain cent with the word “AMERICA” to the left of the chain being the focus among the differences. One reverse features ‘AMERI.” while the others featured show “AMERICA” with periods and without. In June of 2018, a 1793 Flowing Hair Cent with the Chain Reverse and the word “AMERICA” featured with periods sold at auction for $2,350,000. The coin was in an MS66 Brown condition. The obverse featured Lady Liberty, but her disheveled appearance caused criticisms as women from that time period were normally seen with perfect hair.

Flowing Hair, Wreath Reverse (1793)

A quick change in design was necessary as many thought the chains on the reverse were offensive and eluded to the chains of slavery. However, they maintained the Flowing Hair Liberty Head which caused criticism once again. The new reverse, however, was changed to an elegant wreath that encircled the “ONE CENT” inscription as the fraction of “1/100” was moved to the very bottom of the copper cent below the wreath. The wreath was to represent that of laurel, which is the ancient symbol of victory.

The mintage of the Flowing Hair, Wreath Reverse ended up being 63,353 with three known varieties: 1793, Vine/Bars Edge, 1793, Lettered Edge, and 1793 Strawberry Leaf. The Strawberry Leaf is one of the rarest coins to date as they are only four known according to The Official Red Book.

Liberty Cap (1793-1796)

The Liberty Cap design is a direct result of the Philadelphia Mint’s infancy into the production of United States coins. After much to-do about the first two designs of the copper cent, the Liberty Cap design was the third to come from the year 1793 and it seemed to do the trick as it lasted until 1796. According to NGC, Joseph Wright, a portraitist, was the designer of the coin. However, some give credit for this design to Henry Voight.

No matter the designer, Lady Liberty faced to the right and was given a cap that was worn in ancient times by newly freed slaves that symbolized liberation. The reverse of the design depicts a laurel wreath although more sparse than previous designs. The mintage for the 1793 is extremely low (11,056) as could be expected from three different designs in the same year for the same coin. From 1795-1796, John Smith Gardner is given credit for the design as according to The Official Red Book.

Draped Bust (1796-1807)

In 1796, the obverse design of the copper cent coin changed once again at the hands of designer Robert Scot, who was also the first Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. The new Draped Bust design was modeled after a drawing that features Lady Liberty’s flowing hair with a ribbon tied behind her head and a drapery towards her neckline. The word “LIBERTY” is seen along the upper rim of the coin with the date lining the bottom. The reverse features the “ONE CENT” in the middle with the wreath of two olive branches tied around it. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” can be found around the entire edge of the coin’s rim with the fraction “1/100” at the very bottom.

Classic Head (1808-1814)

The Classic Head design has been deemed poorer in quality than its predecessors. The Official Red Book states that it was due to the copper being used being softer and having more impurities. Designer John Reich redesigned the cent denomination with a left-facing portrait of Liberty. She is featured with curly hair that is tied at the top with a headband inscribed with the word “LIBERTY”. She is surrounded by 13 stars on either side of her portrait with the date featured at the bottom.

Liberty Head (1816-1857)

By 1814, the copper shortage in the United States took its toll which resulted in no 1815-dated copper cents. The year 1816 introduced a new copper cent design by Robert Scot. The new design featured an even larger image of Lady Liberty with a coronet and the word “LIBERTY” around her head. The reverse remained unchanged for the most part. This design in total produced over 130 million copper cents between the years 1816 and 1857.

Moving On From Large Cents

By the year 1857, it cost more to make and distribute copper coins than their circulation and popularity were worth. Both half-cent and cent copper coins barely paid the expenses according to Mint Director James Ross Snowden at the time. Therefore, the half-cent was discontinued and the large cent coin transitioned into a smaller cent coin. The new smaller cent was more convenient and soon became popular in the eyes of the public. It became influential in everyday commerce.

Source: NGC Coin; The Official Red Book (2021)