HENRY VOIGT’S LARGE CENT CHAIN DESIGN OF 1793
first regular coins minted by the federal government with its own
machinery and within its own building, were the 36,103 Chain cents
struck at the Philadelphia Mint, March 1-12, 1793. The dies for these
four obverse and two reverse combinations were cut by Henry Voigt.
Coinage halted after a twelve day run because the Mint ran out of coin
was Chief Coiner, and considered the most able man available for the
job. However, his blacksmith and mechanic skills, appropriate for the
striking of coins, were very different from those skills needed for the
hand-cutting of steel dies. Thus, his coin designs were kept quite
simple. Once the layout drawings had been completed, imparted to the
die blanks by transfer wax, and incised by hand, an apprentice could
then safely enter lettering and numerals.
Mint did truly need the services of a Chief Engraver but no qualified
candidates were available. No one had yet been found with the skills
for making device punches. These skills were, of course, necessary for
the mass production of dies needed for the striking of millions of
substantially identical coins.
die making stuff was tricky business. If the head of Ms. Liberty was
to have any appreciable relief (and it could not have been much, given
the small hand-powered coin presses then in use), then the reverses had
to be of a simple, open layout with plenty of blank space in the central
areas. The chain device was an obvious reference to the chains on the
Continental fractional currency of February 1776, the Continental tin
patterns of 1776, and the Fugio cents of 1787 though now with the
issuing authority spelled out as UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Use of the
decimal fraction 1/100 reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the
decimal system and attempted to reach the then large class of people who
could recognize numerals but could not read words. Jacob Bay, a
resident of Germantown, PA, had been making letter punches full-time for
the Mint since December 1792. Either Bay or Voigt could have easily cut a link punch to create the chain design.
choice of the chain device, however, appears to have been ill-timed.
Many people deplored any attempt to associate liberty with the chains
of slavery. Not many people believed that the links of the chain
represented the unity of the United States. Dr. William Sheldon was
somewhat fond of quoting a certain unnamed critic who alluded to
“Liberty in chains.”
obverse of the very first United States coin was certainly not above
criticism. As Walter Breen remarked on a number of occasions, “despite
extremely fine lines, the hair on Ms. Liberty’s head looks disheveled,
then connoting failure of respectability and either madness or
savagery.” Carlile Pollock’s oft-quoted 1796 comment was also less
than complimentary: “. . . 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.” Dr. Sheldon even got in on the fun when he
cited an anonymous gibe at the “wild squaw with the heebie jeebies.”
border of our beloved 1793 cents consists of a plain, raised lip
without beading. This plain border either did not strike up very well,
or it wore down too fast, or maybe both. Thus, beads were added to the
Wreath cent and half cent dies. Without this significant change, the
coins probably would not have stacked.
metallurgical knowledge of the day was most certainly lacking. Thus,
die steel was of poor quality. Coinage dies did not last very long.
One needs only review the mintage records of the era and to look at the
price progression of the Chain cents to confirm this fact.
believed that of the 36,103 Chain cents minted, that probably only 5%
(1500-2000 coins) survive in all grades. Most of the survivors are low
grade because of the wear caused by the inadequate borders on the coins.
The story and history of the very first Federal-issue coins is quite
interesting and appealing to the inquisitive minds of serious numismatists.
closing, I would add the following exclamation point to this brief
review of the 1793 Chain cents. Less than one week after the coins
first appeared, The Mail and Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser,
two of Philadelphia’s newspapers of the day, ran the following story.
It was quickly copied in other papers up and down the East Coast:
The American cents . . . do not answer our expectations. The chain on the reverse
but a bad omen for liberty, and Liberty herself appears to be in a
fright. May she not justly cry out in the words of the
Apostle, “Alexander the coppersmith hath done me much evil: the
Lord reward him according to his works!”
the first time (but not the last), bad press and bad publicity forced
the United States Mint to abandon an adopted coin design, and
unintentionally create a rarity in the process. Students and collectors
of early American coins are the beneficiaries of this situation and
Check back in early July, 2013 for the summer edition of Numismatic Commentary.
I always try to choose interesting topics to explore . . .topics that
will make you a better informed and more successful collector/investor.
Feel free to contact me by email at email@example.com, or visit with me at a coin show, to suggest topics for this missive.
*Q. David Bowers, Colonial and Early American Coins, Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2009.
*Walter Breen, Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, New York: F.C.I. Press, Inc and Doubleday, 1988.
*Joel Orosz and Leonard Augsburger, The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint, Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2011.
*William H. Sheldon, Early American Cents, New York: Harper, 1949.