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HomeUS CoinsAmerica’s First “Penny”: The 1793 AMERI. Flowing Hair Cent

America’s First “Penny”: The 1793 AMERI. Flowing Hair Cent

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
After the founding of the United States in 1776, a variety of privately issued coins, medals, and tokens served alongside foreign coinage to provide the new nation with small but decent supplies of money for everyday commerce.

But the concept of national sovereignty is cemented not only by charters of independence but also by issuing money of the realm. And by the early 1780s, a national debate brewed as to exactly what United States money should look like – both in form and outward design.

By the passage of the Coinage Act of 1792, many details surrounding the new country’s monetary system were hammered out. The nation’s money would take the form of decimalized currency, the dollar serving as the unit, and the cent its hundredth fraction. The lowest denominations that actually were to be produced, the half cent and the cent, were to be made from copper. These two copper coins were also the very first denominations to be minted as regular-issue coins on government-owned machinery at the United States Mint, also authorized by the Act of 1792 and completed later that year.

First Strikes

While the Mint produced many patterns and provisional issues in 1792, the very first U.S. Mint coin released to the public in large numbers and for the intent of regular use as money was the 1793 AMERI. Chain cent. Produced at the United States Mint during early March 1793 and struck to the tune of 36,103 pieces, these first 1793 Chain cents were circulating within a few weeks.

On the obverse is a portrait of Miss Liberty, her mouth pursed to a grimace, eyes sleepily revealed under heavy lids and hair flowing scraggily behind her. The reverse carries a chain encircling the words “ONE CENT” and the fractional declaration of the denomination as “1/100”, while the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERI.” trace the perimeter of the reverse field along a thin rim. Weighing a hefty 13.48 grams and with a breadth of 26-27 millimeters, the edge of each piece is inscribed with bars and a slender vine with leaves.

The coin’s design, engraved by Chief Coiner Henry Voigt, was excoriated by the public almost immediately after the coin appeared in circulation. “The American cents do not answer our expectations,” reads a letter published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on March 20, 1793. “The chain on the reverse is 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 harm; the Lord reward him according to his works.”

Calling upon God’s wrath to punish the designer? Talk about a scathing review.

Change Comes

Detested by many as it was, the design was created as much from necessity as from a lack of artistic talent. The United States Mint was in its infancy and with a chief coiner in Voigt – a talented mechanic and blacksmith but hardly a gifted artist by trade – the dies were kept relatively simple and low-relief both to aid in the cutting and to ensure the proper metal flow of the planchets, which in 1793 were still struck by hand presses.

However, the original Flowing Hair AMERI. cents issued in March 1793 weren’t in production long – the Mint ran short on planchets to cap an end to the AMERI. cents and promptly changed the reverse dies to include the entire spelling of “AMERICA”. By April, Adam Eckfeldt and his assistants commenced work on a modified design softening some features on Miss Liberty and replacing the chain on the reverse with a wreath.

1793 Half Cent - Image: PCGS
1793 Half Cent – Image: PCGS

Another major design change came by way of engraver Joseph Wright, who died of the terrible yellow fever epidemic of summer 1793 but had prepared a Liberty Cap motif that appeared on the one-cent coin by September, by which time the nation’s first half cents were also being struck.

The 1793 AMERI. Cent Today

The 1793 AMERI. Chain cent’s appeal among diehard numismatists is just as strong as it is for those who collect other examples of early Americana, and several specimens of the cent and other 1793 United States coinage is represented in the halls of the finest American history museums. But there aren’t many 1793 AMERI. Chain cents to go around.

The vast majority have been worn beyond recognition, corroded to oblivion, melted for eternity, and otherwise lost to the unforgiving hands of time. PCGS estimates precisely 187 exist across all grades, most surviving in well-circulated grades, a handful extant in lightly worn grades, and just two known in Mint State 60 or better, with only one in MS65. A rarity of this caliber has plenty of takers but not nearly enough representatives to satiate the demands of a numismatic world all too keenly aware of the significance of this first circulating, regular-issue cent – a coin predating even the first half dimes, half dollars, and silver dollars by a year, any gold coinage by two years, and dimes and quarters by three.

For most collectors, the purchase of even a heavily circulated example represents a major financial commitment. Many buyers opt for specimens in the PO1 to AG3 range, which are still highly collectible coins in this series though even in that grade range prices hover between $3,450 and $5,750 according to PCGS CoinFacts. G4 specimens trade for around $9,000 while VG8 pieces take about $13,500.

Prices lurch well into the five figures for moderately worn examples, commanding $25,000 in F12, $45,000 in VF20, and $85,000 in XF40. Specimens grading AU50 and better are six-figure coins that rarely cross the block.

In 2020, a PCGS AU50 took $102,000 at auction while seven years earlier a PCGS MS63 realized $440,625. The all-time-record price for this coin was paid in January 2019, when a PCGS MS64+BN went for $1.5 million.

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