Large Cents – Classic Head Cent 1808-1814

Robert Patterson, an Irish immigrant, was a schoolmaster, shopkeeper, and mathematician, the teacher of the man who later surveyed the original boundaries of the District of Columbia. Principal of the Wilmington Academy in Delaware in the mid-1770s, he left that post to serve in the Revolutionary War, attaining the rank of brigade major. Following the war he resumed his academic endeavors, and was one of five members of the American Philosophical Society chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to help prepare Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for their Pacific Northwest expedition. Likely because of his ties to Jefferson, and his reputation as a respected scholar, Patterson was appointed Director of the U.S. Mint in 1805. As Director, he was instrumental in the ascension of John Reich to the position of Second Engraver under Chief Engraver Robert Scot. Reich was himself an immigrant, having come to this country from Germany as an indentured servant to get away from the Napoleonic Wars. Patterson gave to the talented Reich the responsibility of revamping the designs of U.S. coins, a task applied to the cent for the 1808 issue.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The portrayal of Liberty on the cent had received a fair amount of criticism since the early Flowing Hair Chain and Wreath Reverses (Liberty’s hair was considered wild and uncivilized), through the Liberty Cap and Draped Bust designs (the last apparently disavowed by Gilbert Stuart, the portrait artist whose sketches were translated into the coin model). Reich’s portrayal of Liberty was more reserved, reminiscent of classical art, though the Classic Head name was not attached to the design until 1868 by Ebenezer Mason. Mason’s label was apparently because of the fillet, Liberty’s narrow headband, that dates to ancient Greece. This too caused some criticism because only young males wore the fillet, a prize awarded to the winners of athletic contests. A more significant issue for Reich was the difficulty in securing sufficient copper planchets of good quality, part of the reason for the up-and-down mintage totals during the short seven-year series. The copper available was softer and had more impurities, reflected in the compromised condition of many surviving examples.

The Mint’s usual source of copper was the firm of Boulton & Watt of Birmingham, England, but that supply was restricted during the War of 1812, and all cents produced in 1812 and 1813 were made from blanks on hand. For reasons unknown, Patterson was ordered in 1814 by the Treasury not to make more cents until further notice. Thus, the cent joined the half cent, half dime, dollar, and eagle as denominations whose production ceased in the early 1800s; and those denominations that were produced often were hoarded. Worse for Patterson, he also had no warrants authorizing him to pay his workers during the year, a situation he remedied by ignoring Treasury edicts and coining the remaining cent blanks on hand in December, 1814. Many of those cents were used to pay the back wages owed to the workers. Against a backdrop of general coin shortages, and with no blanks available, cents were not coined in 1815, the only year without cent production from the beginning in 1873 to the present. No proof examples are known, but a few 1810 coins have been designated prooflike.

Reich’s Liberty faces left, displaying a more reserved and mature countenance than the previous Draped Bust type. Her long, curling hair drapes over the forehead, around the ear, and down the back of the neck, and is bound by a ribbon tied at the back. The ribbon prominently displays the word LIBERTY across the facing side. A circle of dentils or beads decorates the rim edge. Thirteen six-point stars frame the portrait, seven to the left and six to the right, and the date is located between the star groups at the bottom. The reverse features a dentilled rim, within which is a concentric circle formed by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, broken at the bottom by the tied ends of an interior circle formed by a laurel branch with berries. At the center is the denomination of ONE CENT, the words on separate lines with a centered dot between, and a short horizontal line is under CENT. All coins were minted at Philadelphia and show no mintmark.

About 1,800 circulation strike Classic Head cents have been certified, most classified BN (Brown) or RB (Red-Brown), with a very few designated RD (Red). Prices are moderate for 1810, 1812, 1813, and 1814 examples through grades of XF30, but higher for cents dated 1808, 1809, 1810 10 Over 09, 1811, and 1811 1 Over 0. Prices advance rapidly finer than XF40 to very expensive as Mint State; Gem examples are extremely expensive, particularly for 1811 RD and 1813 BN cents. RB pieces have a moderate premium over coins designated BN, as do RD examples over those graded RB (more so at higher grades).

Designer: John Reich
Circulation Mintage: high 1,458,500 (1810), low 218,025 (1811)
Proof Mintage: none known
Denomination: One cent (01/100)
Diameter: 29 mm; plain edge
Metal Content: 100% copper
Weight: 10.89 grams
Varieties: A few known, including 1810, 10 Over 09; 1811, Last 1 Over 0; 1812, Large Date, Small Date; 1814 Plain 4, Crosslet 4 (referring to a short vertical bar at the right end of the 4 crosspiece); and other minor die variations.

Additional Resources:
Coin Encyclopedia:
Early American Coppers:
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents 1793-1814. Walter Breen, Mark Borckardt (editor). Bowers and Merena Galleries.
United States Large Cents 1793-1814. William C. Noyes. William C. Noyes.
Penny Whimsy. William H. Sheldon. 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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