Large Cents – Braided Hair Cent, 1839-1857

Liberty Head Large cents were produced from 1816 through 1857. Modifications were made to the Matron Head style starting in the mid-1830s, and the transitional nature of the changes has resulted in differences between reference texts regarding the dates dividing the Robert Scot/ John Reich original design and the changes made later by William Kneass and Christian Gobrecht. Some authors indentify the late 1830s transitional years as a separate type; the difficulty in defining beginning/ ending dates for large cent types of the period is partly because these transitional cents have the hair style (no braids) of the original Matron Head type, but also show the modified portrait and coronet similar this last Braided Hair type. Gobrecht made changes to Liberty in 1839 that were apparently intended for use in 1840, but some 1839-dated cents show these revisions. For this reason, most reference texts include 1839 in both the previous Matron Head style and the subsequent Braided Hair style.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

Gobrecht’s Braided Hair Liberty is thought to be modeled after a depiction of Venus (representing love) in Benjamin West’s 1808 painting “Omnia Vincit Amor”, often translated as “Love Conquers All”. The presentation of Liberty has been called a depiction of the Empire style, a Neoclassical look popular in France in the early 1800s. In women’s clothing, the style represented a time of rich elegance, emphasizing femininity and grace. Though Gobrecht might have hoped this new image would minimize criticism that had been directed at the Matron Head style, that hope was not completely fulfilled. A minor complaint was of the rather nondescript portrayal, at once universal but also nonspecific: “everybody and nobody” as one critic described it. The youthful “Petite” depiction was modified by Gobrecht in 1843, Liberty now more upright relative to a horizontal date orientation and perhaps showing a more mature countenance.

The large cents were initially widely used but gradually the public came to dislike them, not only because of their size and weight, but in part because the coins were not legal tender. Merchants could and sometime did refuse to accept them, or else would take them only at a discount. Some businesses wanted customers to use their own tokens, which of course could be used only in that merchant’s store. However, copper was a useful metal and copper cents were often used by craftsmen and others for more utilitarian purposes, including as medicinal balms, food preservatives, and various industrial parts. By the early 1850s, copper prices had risen to the point that the Mint had trouble securing enough copper blanks, and it cost more than one cent to produce a one cent coin. By 1856 preparations were well under way to replace the large cents with a smaller one cent coin, and included the production of trial pieces. In 1857 both Braided Hair cents and the new smaller copper-nickel Flying Eagle cents were minted, the former the last official large cent issue and the latter the first issue of the small cent that continues to the present.

A left-facing, neoclassical Liberty is in the center of the obverse. Curled and flowing hair is swept back to a bun tied by beaded cords, with locks draped around the ear and down the back of the neck. A coronet worn above the ear and forehead displays LIBERTY, with the hair above the forehead in a rope-like braid rather than loosely swept to the side as in the previous style. Thirteen six-point stars and the date at the bottom form a circle inside dentils located next to the flat rim. The reverse displays UNITED STATES OF AMERICA as a mostly complete circle concentric with the dentils and flat rim. Inside of that is another circle formed by a laurel branch with berries, ends tied by a ribbon at the bottom. The wreath is sometimes called a “Christmas wreath.” In the center is ONE CENT, each word on a separate line. All Braided Hair cents were minted at Philadelphia and display no mintmark.

Several hundred business strike Braided Hair Large cents have been certified, more from the 1850s forward, but many dates and varieties are represented by fewer than 25 coins in census/ population reports. Coins are also classified by surface color, most as BN (Brown), fewer as RB (Red-Brown), and very few as RD (Red). Prices are moderate for many dates/ varieties to near-Gem (Gem for some dates), expensive to very expensive finer. Red-Brown examples are often more expensive than Brown coins, and Red coins more expensive than Red-Brown pieces, particularly those examples finer than MS60. No specific dates are significantly more expensive than others, though some varieties command a higher premium. All proof Braided Hair cents are rare, and none are known for 1839, 1851, and 1853. Fewer than 20 examples have been certified for most dates prior to 1855, and generally fewer than 50 from 1855 to the end of the series. Proofs are also classified by color designation, and some varieties have been identified. Prices range from expensive as PR60 to very expensive finer than PR62. Red (RD) proofs are very expensive, and proofs of 1849 and 1852 more expensive than other dates.

Designer: Robert Scot, after John Reich, with modifications by William Kneass and Christian Gobrecht
Circulation Mintage: high 9,889,707 (1851), low 333,546 (1857)
Proof Mintage: high 200 (1857 estimated), low 20-30 pieces (most dates prior to 1855, estimated)
Denomination: One cent (01/100)
Diameter: 27.5 mm; plain edge
Metal Content: 100% copper
Weight: 10.89 grams
Varieties: Many known, including 1840 Large Date and Small Date, and Small Date Over Large 18; 1842 Small Date and Large Date; 1843 Petite, Large Letters and Small Letters; 1844, 44 Over 81; 1846 Small Date, Medium Date, and Tall Date; 1851, 51 Over 81; 1855 Upright 5’s and Slanting 5’s; 1856 Upright 5’s and Slanting 5’s; 1857 Large Date and Small Date; and other minor die variations.

Additional Resources:
Coin Encyclopedia:
Early American Coppers:
United States Copper Cents 1816-1857. Howard R. Newcomb. Quarterman Publications.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing.
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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