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Confederation-Period Copper Coins: Halfpence, Cents, or Coppers?

Confederation-Period Copper Coins: Halfpence, Cents, or Coppers?

By Craig Sholley, John Dannreuther, Jeff Rock, William Eckberg, Chris McCawley, and Brian Greer for PCGS ……

Many of the Confederation-period copper coins, including the Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont state coinages–along with private issues such as the Nova Constellatio, Immune Columbia, and “1785 USA Bar” pieces–are presently referred to as “coppers”.

That hasn’t always been the case.

Historical records show that the term “coppers” started out as colonial-period jargon for the British half penny and quickly became the common term for any copper coin about the same size and weight, just as “nickel” is common slang for all federal copper-nickel five-cent pieces today. However, times change and so do the meaning of words. By the 1830s, the millions upon millions of federally struck half cents and cents had overwhelmed the old “coppers”, and the term came to mean generally any copper coin – particularly the federal cents.

By the 1850s, the volume of federal cents in circulation resulted in the Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York “coppers” often being called “cents” in numismatic literature. They were roughly the same size as the Massachusetts Cent and the Fugio Cent, which were struck during the same time period. So use of the term, although incorrect, is understandable.

Confederation-Period Copper Coins: Halfpence, Cents, or Coppers?

That view began to change in the mid-1970s as specialists began to question what the proper term was.

Since state legislation used the term “coppers”, collectors and auction catalogs decided to settle on that term. Nevertheless, various state laws, along with legislation authorizing the striking of the state coinages, show that “coppers” was not the official denomination. In fact, these records clearly show that “coppers” was used simply because that was the common term for any copper coin approximately the size and weight of a British half penny. Rather than confuse a largely uneducated public with a seldom-used denomination, contract coinage authorizations and “valuation laws” simply used the term everyone knew: “coppers”.

Common names are often used for coins. Current auction catalogs use “nickel” when referencing the five-cent piece, so it would certainly seem acceptable to call these coins “coppers”. However, the use of “copper” or “coppers” does present some significant issues. Unlike “nickel”, almost no one today understands how the term “coppers” came about and that it formerly meant halfpence. Ask someone today what the denomination of a Connecticut “copper” is, and the result will generally be a blank stare or a vague response like, “They’ve always been called coppers.” The history has been forgotten.

The lack of a recognized denomination has also caused a good deal of confusion in referring to these pieces. There is no denomination shown in major reference books, such as A Guide Book of United States Coins (widely known as “The Red Book”).

But even if the etymology of the term were understood, “copper” still would not be a proper denomination, any more than “nickel” is today. Grading services and catalogs do not use “1N” as an abbreviation. Who would understand that? The abbreviation “5C” is used because the official denomination is “five cents”. Similarly, no monetary system ever used “copper” as an official denomination. Period denominations included pence, shillings, pounds, cents, and dollars. There were French sous and deniers, Spanish reals and maravedis, and numerous other foreign denominations, as well. There never was a monetary unit called a “copper”. “Copper” is not a denomination; it is a slang term, just like “nickel.”

Confederation-Period Copper Coins: Halfpence, Cents, or Coppers?

With that in mind, this article presents evidence that the intended denomination of these “coppers” was a half penny in the hope that the numismatic community will end this unfortunate confusion and start to reference these coins by their correct denomination.

Confederation Period “Coppers” Were Halfpence

That a half penny was the intended denomination of most of the Confederation-period copper coins–and that the term “coppers” was simply the common slang for those coins–is clear from various state laws along with contract coinage proposals and the authorizing legislation (note that although the official spelling of the British denomination is “half penny”, there was no standardized spelling at this time, so “half-penny” and “halfpenny” were also used).

That “coppers” was period jargon for halfpence is made abundantly clear by the contract coinage proposal submitted by Samuel Bishop, Joseph Hopkins, James Hillhouse, and John Goodrich to the Connecticut State Assembly on October 18, 1785. Therein, the proponents stated that they would coin “Coppers of good metal of the standard & weight of British half pence commonly called coppers…” It is not possible for a statement to be any clearer; “coppers” meant halfpence.

The October 20, 1785, authorization by the Connecticut State Assembly to proceed with the coinage contract makes the lawful denomination completely clear. That act granted the petitioners the right to coin coppers:

“…not to exceed the amount of Ten Thousand Pounds lawful money in Value of the Standard of British [sic] half pence, to weigh Six penny weight…”

Since the coins were to have both the value and weight of a British halfpence, it is quite clear that the intended lawful denomination was a half penny – though it should be noted that a half penny had different commercial values in different states, as will be discussed below. However, the denomination was still a halfpenny.

A May 20, 1790, report to the New Jersey Assembly likewise shows that the word “coppers” was generally understood to mean a coin equivalent to a British half penny. As the report stated:

“The New Jersey Coppers coined by law are superior in weight to the British, are of pure metal and weigh six penny weight and six grains each…”

Once again, we have an official government record comparing a state copper to a British half penny.

The New York “valuation law” of March 5, 1787, clearly shows that a half penny was also the legally accepted value (and thus the denomination) in other states as well. That law valued British halfpence, “genuine Jersey coppers,” and “Birmingham Coppers” (period slang for counterfeit British halfpence) at 14 to the shilling. Since the law valued the New Jersey copper coins the same as British halfpence, the New Jersey coins were legally established as a half penny in the State of New York.

Quite interestingly, state tax, duty, and fee laws enacted at this time never used the term “coppers”. Rather, taxes, duties, and fees were specified in pounds, shillings, pence, and halfpence. The reason is quite obvious. By specifying a half penny, any coin lighter in weight than the British coin could be refused as payment. For example, regal and counterfeit Irish halfpence were also called “coppers” in both America and Great Britain. Regal Irish halfpence typically ran, on average, around 120 grains, with counterfeits generally being around 100 grains. No state government wanted to “get stuck” with excessively lightweight coins, which certainly would have happened if the laws had said “coppers”.

At this point, it seems appropriate to address what we call the “valuation paradox”, as those with a fair knowledge of the English coinage system likely have already spotted it.

As previously noted, New York valued the New Jersey halfpence at 14 to the shilling. The New Jersey law authorizing the coining contract valued the coins at “fifteen Coppers to the Shilling.” Since there are 12 pence or 24 halfpence in a shilling per the English monetary system, how can the New Jersey coins possibly be halfpence when state laws valued them at 14 to 15 per shilling? It doesn’t make any sense.

One of the forgotten points of U.S. monetary history is that a shilling in America was not the same as a British shilling. Each of the states had its own valuations for the various denominations of pounds, shillings, and pence. In some states, the British shilling was worth as much as two “state” shillings. Thus, a rate of 14 to 15 halfpence per “shilling” does make sense. As will be discussed in the following section, this valuation paradox so flummoxed researchers and collectors in the 1970s that the use of “halfpence” in reference to these coppers was essentially banned from the lexicon from that point on.

The Vermont coinage illustrates the problem with the varying weights of “coppers” at this time. On June 15, 1785, the Vermont assembly and governor approved a bill for the contract coining of “coppers” at a weight of one-third troy ounce (160 grains). Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that this standard exceeded the weight of most of the copper coins then currently in circulation, and on October 27, 1785, the required weight was reduced to “weighing not less than four penny weight fifteen grains each” (i.e., not less than 111 grains).

Unfortunately, most of the copper coins in circulation at that time were Regal and counterfeit Irish halfpence or the so-called “Birmingham Coppers”. As previously noted, Regal Irish halfpence ran 120 grains with the counterfeits averaging around 100. “Birmingham Coppers” weighed 110.4 grains on average, well below the average weight of genuine British halfpence, which ran about 146 grains. A standard of “not less than” 111 grains thus made perfect sense based on the average weight of the most common “coppers” in circulation.

Regardless of the weight mistake, Vermont “coppers” should still be considered halfpence. The “portrait-type” pieces have devices very similar to those on the British halfpence, so clearly the intention was for them to be valued the same.

Likewise, the “portrait-type” Connecticut and New York Nova Eborac copper coins with their laureate heads, seated female form holding a pole, and Latin inscriptions are all clearly meant to mimic British halfpence and thus evoke familiarity in the public mind. That they so closely copy the British coin in design, size, and weight is obviously intentional and not some mere coincidence.

While we have focused the discussion on the “state” coinages, privately issued pieces–including the New York Excelsior and related pieces, Nova Constellatio, Immune and Immunis Columbia, Inimica Tyrannis, Auctori Plebis, and “1785” USA Bar–were clearly intended to be valued as halfpence based on their size. Yes, some of these issues were very light in weight to the point of dishonesty (same as the “Birmingham Coppers”), and some were likely struck in England. However, we still see no substantive reason not to consider these “coppers” as halfpence. They were certainly intended to pass as such in commerce.

It should also be noted that period newspapers published notices of the state legislature acts authorizing the coinages and valuations and did so without any explanation that “coppers” meant “halfpence”. To the public, “coppers” was the term for these coins, so “coppers” was used in the legislation to effectively communicate that they were to be valued as a halfpence.

Additional stories in period newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic likewise show that “coppers” was the common term for halfpence in both Great Britain and America.

For example, the August 10, 1785, issue of The Political Intelligencer and New Jersey Advertiser reported on the importation of British halfpence into the United States at what they considered inflated values, stating that, “these coppers can be purchased in different places in England and Ireland, at the rate of 21 or more of them for a shilling.” The Gazette of the United States, published in New York City, regularly printed updated valuations for “coppers” during the “Copper Panic”.

The April 14 to 17, 1789, issue of The Edinburg Advertiser, published in Edinburg, Scotland, repeatedly and interchangeably used the terms “coppers” and “halfpence” in a story about counterfeit halfpence being imported into Ireland.

Confederation-Period Copper Coins: Halfpence, Cents, or Coppers?

On March 15, 1787, the Quebec Gazette published a notice setting the official price of bread at 5 pence “or 10 coppers”. In a subsequent edition on June 15, the price was updated to “5 1/2 d. or 11 coppers.” There is thus no doubt that, at the time in question, “coppers” meant halfpence throughout North America and Great Britain.

Both “halfpence” and “coppers” were used in period literature, particularly accounts of those travelling in the United States and later “recollections of life” during those times.

Englishman John Hodkinson noted that the exchange rate for the New York shilling was “7½ d.” (e.g., seven-and-a-half pence sterling), and fellow countryman Henry Wansey noted that as late as 1794 the “copper halfpence of Connecticut, Vermont, or Massachusetts” were still not accepted in New York City.

Benjamin Franklin used both terms in his autobiography. In the story of his arrival in Philadelphia as a young man, he related that he had but “one Dutch dollar and about a shilling’s worth of coppers,” and in his famous parable on values (also published as a short story, “The Whistle”), he recounted giving all the “coppers” he had for a shiny whistle in which he soon lost interest. In yet another story, he noted that the cost of a good breakfast was just “three-halfpence.”

Thomas Jefferson likewise used both terms. In official records, he used “half penny”. For example, in the Second State of the Report on Commerce, he reported that Denmark placed a duty of “about a half penny” on each pound of tobacco. However, in private correspondence he typically used “coppers”. In a March 17, 1792, letter to William Brown discussing the value of tobacco he had provided to settle an account, Jefferson stated, “It is as unexpected to me that I owe a copper on this account…”

The coin journals of one of the knowledgeable and prolific collectors of the day, Sarah Sophia Banks, further establish the fact that “half penny” was the proper denomination for these coins. Banks’ journals show her collection contained four Connecticut pieces, two each dated 1785 and 1787, New Jersey pieces dated 1786 and 1787, and three Vermont pieces, two dated 1786, one annotated as struck over “an old half penny,” and one 1788. All of these coins were cataloged as “half penny”.

Banks additionally had three Massachusetts coins. Two were cataloged as “Cent of Massachusetts. 1787, 1788,” and one as “Half Cent of Massachusetts. 1788.” Her collection also contained several British halfpence, Conder Tokens, and evasion halfpence, all noted as “half penny” in her journals. She never used the slang term “copper”. Banks knew the proper denominations and she was careful to catalog her pieces as such.

As the foregoing records show, both “halfpence” and “coppers” were terms used for the same coins. Furthermore, while “coppers” was the more commonly used term, it was also generally understood among those with some education that the term was just jargon for a halfpence.

How American Halfpence Lost Their Denominations

Historical records show that the American halfpence lost their denomination simply because they were overwhelmed by the massive issuance of federal cents. As more and more federal coinage was issued, the old reckoning in halfpence, shillings, and pounds was gradually forgotten. By the mid-1830s, “coppers” no longer meant “halfpence”. An article in the March 20, 1837, New York Herald on the possible replacement of the “present coppers” (i.e., federal large cents) by a new, smaller cent of zinc or, as the paper suggested, by German silver, clearly illustrates this point.

That “coppers” had evolved to mean the federal large cents is made even clearer by a story in the October 10, 1846 issue of The Columbian Fountain (Washington, D.C.). The article relates that the auctioneer was ready to close the bid at thirteen cents, when “someone put on an additional cent so the ‘sweet wine’ was knocked down at fourteen coppers a gallon…” [emphasis added].

The proper denomination of halfpence and the slang term “coppers” for the Confederation-period halfpence likewise disappeared from the numismatic lexicon. From the 1851 Lewis Roper sale until the 1980s, auction catalogs and fixed price lists never used “halfpence” or “coppers”.

Numismatic texts further confused the issue.

In his 1860 work, A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins in the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States, James Ross Snowden muddied the waters calling the Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont copper coins “cents” along with the Nova Constellatio and “Kentucky token”. The mélange of terms continued despite Sylvester Crosby publishing the legislation calling them “coppers” and “halfpence”.

Crosby himself was at least partially at fault. Rather than driving the point home and using the proper denomination, or even slang term “coppers”, he called these pieces “coins” in his tables and variety listings, such as Tables of Varieties of Vermont Coins and Tables of Varieties of Connecticut Coins. He further muddied the waters, just as Snowden had, mistakenly referring to the Connecticut halfpence as “Connecticut cents”. It may well be that, as with later numismatists, Crosby simply did not realize the implication of the documents he had published showing that the proper denomination was actually a half penny.

Auction listings and fixed price lists became a hodge-podge of terms. W. Elliot Woodward often called the Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York pieces “cents” and occasionally did so for other pieces, including the Immune Columbia, Immunis Columbia, and “Bar Cent” pieces. Other times, he would simply list the coins by the obverse Latin inscription, such as Auctori Connec or Nova Eborac. Edward Cogan often called the Connecticut and New Jersey pieces “cents” but never did so for others. Likewise, John W. Haseltine listed Crosby’s Connecticut and New Jersey pieces as “cents”, but no others. Confusion reigned supreme.

The numismatic terms for these pieces remained a pastiche until the 1980s when the term “copper” began to dominate, as it does today. The turning point came in 1973 or ’74, when James Spilman, editor of The Colonial Newsletter, published one of his famous “Research Forum” questions, RF-43, along with his comments on the subject:

Why were the Early American Halfpence called coppers rather than halfpence, and what is the origin of the term “coppers”?

Crosby reports on page 207 that in the Resolution of the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut which authorized the coinage of the Connecticut Coppers “for the purpose of Coining Coppers of good metal of the standard weight of British Halfpence commonly called coppers, […] and etc.” The term Coppers relative to the Connecticut coinage was used thereafter. These coins are therefore, by definition, Connecticut Coppers and NOT Connecticut Cents or Connecticut Halfpence.

Surprisingly, Spilman was wrong on two major points. Not only wasn’t the cited portion in the state resolution (it was in the proposal made by those seeking the contract), but he also completely missed the part clearly stating that British halfpence were commonly called coppers, thus showing that “coppers” was period slang for “halfpence”. Substituting the correct denomination for the slang, Spilman had essentially said: These coins are therefore, by definition, Connecticut Halfpence and NOT Connecticut Cents or Connecticut Halfpence! There’s obviously a serious problem when someone as knowledgeable as Spilman is confused.

Two responses were published in the following October 1973 issue. Walter Breen, often wrong but never in doubt, emphatically stated that:

“The reason is clear enough – ‘Coppers’ merely meant copper coins, and the pieces were not called halfpence because they did not pass as such. Crosby cites various coppers as passing at 14 to the shilling, which automatically rules out their being valued at a halfpenny apiece.”

Breen obviously did not realize that there was a big difference between the value of a “state shilling” and a British shilling. Even more troubling, there were no responses to Breen’s declaration. Clearly, critical knowledge had been lost.

Charles Funk, Jr. also responded:

“What bugs me even more than the question posed is, ‘When, and why, did the Connecticut coppers begin to be mis-called ‘cents’?’ The questioner is quite correct in stating that Connecticut’s coinage is properly referred to as ‘Connecticut coppers.’ The coins are neither ‘cents’ nor ‘halfpence.’”

He then proceeded on to a somewhat winding three-paragraph discussion including the definition and origin of “a copper” from the Oxford English Dictionary and a rather “interesting” conclusion that post-war Americans would have had “very little desire – even, probably, active opposition” to using British denominations due to what he said were “hard feelings on both sides.”

Funk’s arguments are just as off-target as those of Spilman and Breen. First, the OED was not published until 1884, so he had used a definition and etymology far removed from the time. Furthermore, like Breen, he was obviously unaware that post-war Americans most certainly did use the British monetary system terms pence, shillings, and pounds, just with different valuations.

The last two responses to the question were published in the September 1974 issue. Edward Barnsley noted that “It has been well established in numismatic literature that Coppers is the correct name to apply to those coins,” but then proceeded to note that numismatic books and articles–such as those by H.C. Miller and William C. Prime–used the terms “cent” and “coppers” interchangeably. He concluded saying, “As far as I am concerned, the two names are a distinction without difference. In common parlance, a Connecticut Copper is a Connecticut Cent, and a Connecticut Cent is a Connecticut Copper. It’s just that simple!”

Robert J. Lindesmith felt much the same, noting he found it hard to take issue with John W. Haseltine listing Crosby’s Connecticut pieces as “cents” in the sale catalog. Thus, there was not universal agreement as to the proper term.

Nonetheless, the “coppers” side took hold and auction catalogs began using “copper” instead of cent. By the 1980s, the term “cent” had likewise been banned from the lexicon in reference to these pieces, which is where we remain today.


It could be argued that the authorizing legislation called these pieces “coppers”, so that is their official denomination, and this is what should be used. However, that argument is not correct. None of legislation or subsequent “valuation laws” ever established the term “coppers” or “copper” as the official denomination. Rather, the legislation and laws used the term “coppers” as a common description of the coins being struck because that was the term understood by the public. As previously noted, these points can clearly be seen in the coinage proposal for the Connecticut halfpence, wherein the petitioners stated that they would coin “Coppers of good metal of the standard & weight of British half pence commonly called coppers…”

The wording in the authorizations for the Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont state “coppers” also makes these points clear. The term “coppers” is never directly stated as the official denomination. It was used as a general description because that was the term the public understood. Newspapers used both terms only when they felt clarification was necessary and commercial advertisements generally used “coppers”.

As can be seen from the foregoing discussion, the terms “copper” and “coppers” were simply period jargon for “half penny” and “halfpence” on both sides of the Atlantic and that “half penny” is the actual denomination. This fact was simply forgotten over the years as the old monetary system was abandoned and the meaning of “copper” and “coppers” came to mean federally minted cents.

Slang terms like “copper” or “nickel” are not denominations, they are merely period vernacular. And, the problem with using period vernacular is that it changes meaning over time. “Coppers” evolved from meaning halfpence to meaning federal large cents to being meaningless outside of numismatic circles today. “Coppers” is no longer used to refer to any copper coinage by the public at-large. The term has lost all meaning; it is obsolete.

The misunderstanding of the period usage and subsequent evolution of the term “copper” has led to so much confusion over what the denomination of these pieces actually is that reference books simply list them by their issue type and the two major grading services simply don’t place a denomination on the holders. This is certainly a disservice to what are truly the first “American” coins.

We urge the numismatic community to restore the correct denomination of half penny, using “1/2P” to distinguish an “American half penny” from the British denomination (“1/2D”). “1/2P” is the proper denomination as the state coinages were struck under authority of the Articles of Confederation, thus making those coins United States issues. Applying the same term to privately struck issues, including those imported from abroad, is also appropriate as the coins were intended to pass in the U.S. as halfpence.

Since these pieces (and other period coinage) are most certainly NOT colonial coins, we further urge the community to consider moving references to these coins under a category such as “Confederation-Period Coinage” or “Post-Colonial Coinage,” the latter term already being used by “The Red Book” and other numismatic organizations.

It would be proper for the auction companies to likewise use the proper denomination, but not absolutely necessary as the slang term “nickel” is typically used for five-cent coins. However, we do feel that if they continue with “copper”, they should at least explain that the proper denomination is a half penny.

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Certifying coins since 1986, Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) is a division of Collectors Universe, Inc. (NASDAQ: CLCT), a leader in third-party authentication and grading services for high-value collectibles including rare coins, trading cards, tickets, autographs, memorabilia, and stamps.

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