Dr. Sol Taylor

The First Coins of the U.S.A.

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, May 19, 2007

rom 1776 to 1791, the United States relied on a mishmash of coinage and paper money to facilitate commerce. Some states issued their own coinage which often circulated across state lines. The first federally authorized coinage, the Fugio Cent, was privately minted in 1787 under contract with the Continental Congress. It is believed this was a Benjamin Franklin design.
    Congress passed a resolution on March 3, 1791, to build and operate a federal mint in Philadelphia. The bill to actually follow through was passed on April 2, 1792. The standard for coinage established by Alexander Hamilton was based on a gold standard eagle ($10), half eagle and quarter eagle, silver coins of one dollar, half dollar, quarter dollar, dime (spelled "disme" at the time) and half dime (5 cents). The pure copper coins of one cent and half-cent were the final two denominations in the coinage series.
    President George Washington appointed David Rittenhouse, a Philadelphia scientist, to be the first director of the new Mint building at Seventh Street and Arch, a few blocks from Independence Hall. Martha Washington donated some personal silverware for the manufacture of the first coins — about 1,200 half dismes and a smaller number of dismes. (The spelling on the later issued coins was changed to "dime" since it was pronounced "dime".) A few dozen of the half dismes are known today, and only three of the dismes.
    The bullion for copper coins was purchased mostly from British and French sources, as well as currently circulating copper colonial coins and tokens.
    The silver was mostly recycled foreign silver coinage and silverware purchased from local sources such as jewelers. Since there were no gold mines active anywhere near the Mint, gold was purchased from jewelers, private parties and recycled foreign gold coins.
    The first issues in 1793 were meager and hardly met the needs of even local commerce. The 1793 half cent had a total mintage of 35,334 pieces.
    Since they were somewhat heavier than a half cent's worth of copper, some wound up being used for bullion. They are rare today in all conditions, with the poorest known specimens valued above $1,000.
    The first one-cent coins were also minted in 1793, in several different formats. The Liberty head design, modeled after current French coinage image of Liberty, featured a chain of 13 links on the reverse. Only 36,100 of these pieces were minted. The design was changed early in 1793 to eliminated the chain and replace it with a wreath. The various varieties of this design totaled 63,353 pieces.
    One of the greatest rarities in the series is the so-called "strawberry leaf" variety. A specimen graded as fine sold for $414,000 in November 2004.
    The final design for the same year included added the Phrygian cap above Liberty's head. A total of 11,056 pieces were issued with this final design of 1793. All 1793 large cents are considered very scarce to very rare in all grades.
    The first silver coins (other than the 1792 issues, which may have been patterns) started with the 1794 half dime. The obverse was similar to the copper coins, and the reverse featured an eagle. A total of 86,416 pieces were issued. As with other early federal issues, many were hoarded or converted to bullion. In mint condition, the few known pieces are valued at $50,000 and more.
    The first dimes weren't minted until 1796. The first issue followed the pattern of Miss Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. The first issue was a modest 22,135 pieces. Very few have survived to date, and all are worth more than $1,000 in low grades, and close to $1 million in Mint State.
    The first silver coins saw very little use outside of the major East Coast cities. Even there, most merchants relied on the better-known and more readily available Spanish-American silver coins.
    Also in 1796, the first quarter dollar coins were issued. As with the other silver coins, the available bullion and recycled silver was so limited as the keep mintages very low. Even if the bullion were available, the screw presses in use at the time limited the number of coins made in a given work day. Each coin was made one at a time by turning a screw fulcrum. Only 6,146 pieces were made, and no other quarters were minted until 1804.
    The available silver was mostly saved for the larger silver coins. This one-year type coin has always been very popular and in all grades is scarce to very rare. Mint specimens are worth more than $100,000.
    The first half dollars were minted in 1796. Only 3,908 pieces were made — some with 15 stars and the rest with 16 stars, representing the number of states at the time. These are all very scarce to very rare, with a Mint State specimen bringing $460,000 in March 2004.
    The first silver dollar was issued in 1794 with a small mintage of 1,758 pieces. It has the distinction of being the first coin to sell for more than $100,000 back in 1975. The same specimen sold in January 2005 for $1.15 million. Some were hoarded, some were converted to bullion, and since the Spanish milled dollars were far more available in commerce, these new dollars saw very little use.
    As with silver coins at the time, the new mint had no reliable source of gold except recycled foreign gold coins and jewelry sold by local jewelers. The first gold coin was the quarter eagle ($2.5) issued in 1796. Only 963 pieces were issued, and very few actually circulated. A Mint State piece was sold in June 2005 for $1.38 million.
    The first gold half eagle ($5) was also minted in 1796, with a total of 8,707 pieces. These are very rare in all grades and mint specimens could top $1 million at auction.
    The first gold eagle ($10) was minted din 1796 with a total of $5,583 pieces. A Mint State piece sold at auction in July 2003 for $506,000. As with the other new gold issues, these pieces saw very little commercial use, and high grade specimens still exists today. Well-worn specimens are actually very unusual, since the coins rarely changed hands.
    Production of gold coins in subsequent years did not pick up significantly due to a lack of bullion. Mintage figures remained low for many years. Silver coins fared much better during the early years and copper cents and half cents saw major increases in output after 1800.
    The early Mint barely produced as many coins as there were people in the country. Eventually it outgrew its capacity and has undergone several changes through the years, including locations, moving to its present site on Market Street in 1969.
    A type set of each of the first-issued Philadelphia Mint coins would be an impressive set indeed, at a cost of no less than $100,000 in lower grades and well over $2 million in higher grades.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.