Half-Cents and Cents : Flowing Hair Large Cent : Type 1, Chain Cent

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1793 Chain Cent Obverse 1793 Chain Cent Reverse

Reprinted with permission from Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents 1793-1814, by Walter Breen, edited by Mark R. Borckardt

These were the first cents made pursuant to the Act of January 14, 1793 at the new legal weight of 208 grains (13.48 grams), reduced from an impossibly high 264 grains (17.11 grams). They are the first mass production coins in any metal issued by the federal government on its own machinery, and within its own premises. For all practical purposes, these are the first regular issue United States coins.1

Henry Voigt2 completed the dies sometime in February after vain attempts to engrave the devices.3 Though officialdom consid- ered him the ablest man for the post here or overseas, the mechanical skills appropriate to a coiner are very different from those of a diesinker. Accordingly, Voigt's designs had to be as simple as possible. We know that Voigt made the dies because of a line in Elias Boudinot's Report to Congress, February 9, 1795:

It was also a considerable time before an engraver could be engaged, during which, the chief coiner was obliged to make the dies himself, and yet the dies are subject to frequent failure by breaking.4

Use of a Liberty head design was inevitable because of the terms of the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, mandating "a device emblematic of liberty." Her unbound hair was meant to symbolize freedom; instead, what its disheveled look then suggested was failure of respectability, either savagery or, more often, madness. This explains such criticisms as Carlile Pollock's comment5 in a letter to General Williams, January 25, 1796:

A plough and a sheaf of wheat would be better than an Idiot's head with flowing hair, which was meant to denote Liberty, but which the world will suppose was intended to designate the head of an Indian squaw.6

Sheldon quotes others, notably an anonymous gibe at the "wild squaw with the heebie jeebies," supposedly ante- dating by over a century Billy DeBeck's coinage of the phrase in Barney Google.7

The endless chain device deliberately echoes the reverses of Continental notes of February 1776, the 1776 Continental Currency tin alloy penny, and the 1787 Fugio coppers. This was an unfortunate choice as, to many (then as now), a chain connoted not strength, but slavery. The 1776 prototype, with 13 links for the 13 United Colonies, was Benjamin Franklin's contribution, copied in 1787 by Abel Buell for the Fugios or "Congress Coppers." The 1793 revision with 15 links, for the 15 states then in the Union, most likely came from a sketch by David Rittenhouse. Either version of the design posed tricky geometrical problems, most likely an attempt to discourage would-be counterfeiters.

Voigt imparted the chain to both working dies by repeated hand punching of a single link element. This link punch, like the letter and numeral punches, bust have been by the Germantown type founder Jacob Bay, who made punches for all of the denominations until his death in one of the yellow fever epidemics.8

Use of the decimal fraction 1/100 served two purposes: it reaffirmed federal commitment to the decimal system and it attempted to reach the then large class of people who could recognize numerals, even common fractions, but could not read words.

The cents' plain raised "lip" border, without beading or dentilation, proved unsatisfactory. Evidently it did not strike up well (especially if the blanks were even slightly narrow) and the coins wore down too fast. Many survivors show little or no trace of the raised border though the planchets were apparently given upset rims to accommodate it. This may explain why, less than a month later, the new Wreath design showed obverse and reverse border beading within more noticeably raised rims.

Little is known about the sources of stool steel used by the Mint for making the dies. However, available die steel was evidently not of high quality, to judge by die life: only 36,103 impressions from four obverse dies and two reverse dies (averaging about 9,000 per obverse, 18,000 per reverse, or less than 10% of what it was to be 10 years later). The toughest of the dies of this group (Chain Reverse B) must have lasted no more than 29,000 impressions. Part of the problem was inefficient hardening methods; not until 1795 did Adam Eckfeldt find a solution.9

Planchets came from scrap copper on hand since October 179210. This had come in three lots:

Date Pounds Source
Sept. 11-Nov. 23 1,005 Henry Voigt. "Sundry lots."
October 16 1,200 James and Shoemaker11
November 26 4,140 Gustavus & Hugh Colhoun.12

There is no way to distinguish blanks made from the three lots; they may even have been mingled in a single melt operation.13 This weight of copper certainly yielded more than enough for all the Chain Cents and part of the Wreaths. After coinage began at the end of February, Voigt resumed buying scrap copper, pending negotiations for purchase of sheet copper from England:

Date Pounds Source
March 1 46 lb 10 oz. Daniel King
March 5 746 William Zane
March 6 188 Daniel King

Predictably, scrap copper varied greatly in homogeneity, density, malleability, and hardness. This is partly from different trace elements and partly from the way the individual lumps had been treated in manufacture. This was a most unsatisfactory expedient; the coiner's department (Voigt) learned quickly that different ingots cast from it varied greatly, with far too many gas bubbles. Strip rolled from these ingots (and therefore also, in turn, the planchets cut from it) came out with too many cavities (pit marks) and laminations (flakes, cracks, and splits). Many surviving Chain cents accordingly show such flaws, collectively termed "planchets defects." These do not automatically detract from a coin's grade or desirability, but some are unsightly, and they could have attracted criticism, becoming one of the many excuses for attacks by those politicians who wanted to abolish the Mint and negotiate with British token makers for contract coinage. For more on this issue see the introductory historical material on 1794, below.14

Chain cents may have been ceremonially struck on Washington's birthday, Friday, February 22.15 Eight deliveries for circulation followed:16

Struck Delivered Quantity Varieties
Feb. 27-March 1 March 1 11,178 1,2
March 2 March 2 2,009 3,4
March 4 March 4 4,000 4
March 5 March 5 3,765 4
March 6 March 6 1,573 4
March 7-8 March 8 7,000 4.5
March 9 March 9 1,000 5
March 11-12 March 12 5,578 5
  Total 36,103  

Coinage halted for lack of blanks, though more copper was on hand to be melted, rolled, and cut. Over 40,000 additional blanks were ready by March 31, though by this time the Wreath type dies were in production.17

Quantitative rarity ratings indicate that slightly more than 1,000 Chain Cents survive of all kinds, or about 2.8% of the original mintage. (Survival proportions vary with later designs and dates).

Key to 1793 Chain Cents
Description Sheldon Breen
AMERI. Reverse 1 1
Widest date 2 2
Close date and LIBERTY 3 4
Periods after date and LIBERTY 4 5
Widest LIBERTY NC-1 3

General Description

Liberty's head is facing right with a low, receding forehead, windblown hair, and a short, pointed neckline. This device was drawn by hand directly on the die blanks, not sunk from a punch. LIBERTY above and 1793 below are each from individual punches. The border is a plain raised lip, without ornamentation.
An endless chain of 15 links was entered by repeated use of a single link punch. Within, ONE / CENT / 1/100. Around, beginning at about 11:00, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (the first die abbreviates it as AMERI). All letters and numerals were individually punched. The border is as the same as on the obverse.
Vine and bars. Genuine specimens with plain edge are mint errors with all reported to date listed. (Beware of casts and electrotype copies).
Variable, the blank cutter used was normally one that produced a 17/16 inch diameter (27.0 millimeters) planchets, but different specimens range from 25 to 28+ millimeters. These may possibly represent use of blank cutters for one inch and 35/32 inch (25.4 and 27.8 millimeters, respectively). Part of the variance comes from different forces of the press: without a close collar, stronger blows (or additional ones) spread a planchet wider. The blank used for the presentation specimen of variety 5, "The Coin," was apparently deliberately broader than normal although the exact diameter is unrecorded.
Weight standard:
208 grains (13.48 grams). Observed range, 200-221 grains (12.96-14.32 grams).
Planchet stock:
Rolled from local scrap copper or punched from ingots, as discussed above.


  1. The various pattern coins of 1792, produced in or out of the Mint facility were not issued for circulation, excepting the 1792 half disme, and this was not produced within the Mint building.
  2. Voigt was appointed chief coiner on January 29, 1793, after serving as pro tem coiner since spring 1792.
  3. Editor's note: Past literature has attributed the 1793 Chain Cent dies to Jean Pierre Droz (sometimes spelled Drost), originating from an article by Patterson DuBois in the July 1883 American Journal of Numismatics. Droz never visited the United States and certainly seems an unlikely candidate.
  4. R.W. Julian, "The Mint Investigation of 1795," Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, July 1961, p. 1717.
  5. Editor's note: The reader is invited to refer to an article by Dr. Harry Salyards, "On Squaw's Heads and Chain Cents", Penny-Wise, no. 142, 1/15/91, pp. 26-27, discussing his view that Pollock's letter refers clearly to early silver coins and has no link to Chain cents.
  6. Coin Collectors Journal, February 1877, p. 28.
  7. Early American Cents, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949, p. 13. Unfortunately, Dr. Sheldon had misplaced his source when I asked him about it in 1958; nor did he ever again locate the "wild squaw."
  8. No further details of Jacob Bay are currently available.
  9. Craig B. Sholley, in a letter to the editor dated August 1, 1996, comments "the die steel the mint was using was no worse than that available to their European counterparts as much of it was imported...The real problem was the whole process - they simply did not have a grasp of the proper methods for forging and hardening dies." For additional information, see: Craig Sholley, "Inexperience, Not Die Steel, Caused Problems At Early US Mint," Penny-Wise, March 1996.
  10. R. W. Julian, "The Cent Coinage of 1793," Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, Dec. 1974, p. 68.
  11. Frank H. Stewart, History of the First United States Mint, Philadelphia: The author, 1924, p. 170 lists this as 1,451 pounds.
  12. Stewart, p. 72, spells this last name Calhoun. The correct spelling, according to contemporary records, is Colhoun.
  13. Metallurgical testing does not help without a control sample to compare.
  14. R.W. Julian, in a letter to the editor dated July 26, 1994, notes that "it is quite possible, and even likely, that some of the copper imported from England was of the correct thickness for simply punching out the blanks. It may also have been necessary to roll it down slightly. Once used, of course, it had to be melted and rolled all over again."
  15. Julian, "Cent Coinage of 1793," p. 64.
  16. Julian, "The Beginning of Coinage - 1793," Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, May 1963, p. 1359
  17. Julian, "Cent Coinage of 1793," p. 66.