Large Cents – Liberty Cap Cent, 1793-1796

The Liberty Cap design by Joseph Wright was derived from what today is likely one of the most popular early medals, the Libertas Americana medal by Augustin DuprŽ. Sponsored by Benjamin Franklin, the Libertas Americana medal not only symbolized American victories in our Revolutionary War, but also represented the friendship between France and the new American nation. On the obverse of the cent Wright added a pole supporting a Phrygian cap, worn by freed slaves in Greece and Rome and adapted as a symbol of freedom by both America and France. He also softened and constrained Liberty’s wildly flowing locks, which had been criticized as being unduly savage or aboriginal in appearance. The reverse design was also simplified, though all of the design elements remained. Wright did not see any of the cents made with his design (other than, perhaps, a sample piece) because he died nearly a week before any of the 1793 pieces were delivered.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

Robert Scot, Wright’s successor, further simplified the design and lowered the relief of the coin, most likely to minimize die wear and to enable the detail to be more clearly brought up by the presses in use at the time. In November, 1794, John Smith Gardner was hired as Acting Assistant Engraver, and he produced device punches under Scot’s direction. And, in a time when there was still debate on whether the government or private contractors should produce the nation’s coins, sample cents with Wright’s motifs (the Jefferson Head cents) were produced in 1795 by John Harper, who hoped to secure a lucrative private contract for federal coinage.

In late 1795 the weight of the cent was reduced, necessitated because of rising copper costs: it cost the Mint $1.22 to make 100 cents. To keep the diameter the same, the thickness of cent planchets was reduced, which meant edge lettering was no longer possible. Then, as now, the change in coinage was politically sensitive because the public had expressed dissatisfaction with lightweight British copper coins. Agreements between President Washington and Mint Director Elias Boudinot to implement the change were not publically announced until late January, 1796, possibly to give the Mint time to produce and distribute the new cents before any citizen criticism could elicit a negative response from Congress. In the transitional year of 1796, both Liberty Cap cents and the subsequent design, Draped Bust cents, were produced.

A right-facing Liberty is centered on the obverse, her swept hair loosely clumped and streaming to the back. A Liberty cap hangs from the end of a pole placed behind Liberty, with only a bit of the pole and the cap visible at the top left and the end of the pole visible along the neck to the bottom right. The word LIBERTY is centered at the top and the date is at the bottom. A circle of beads lies inside the rim of the planchet on 1793 coins; the beads were replaced in 1794 and for the last two years by dentils that extend to the edge of the coin.

The reverse of 1793 cents also has a beaded rim, though positioned more toward the center, with a concentric circle formed by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the denomination of 1/100 (the fraction bar is horizontal) just to the inside of the beads. The beads were replaced in 1794 and for the last two years by dentils. The center displays two curved laurel branches with berries, tied at the bottom with a flowing ribbon, that form a wreath enclosing ONE CENT. The edge of 1793-1795 issues has the text ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR followed by a single leaf; thin-planchet coins from 1795 and 1796 have a plain edge (four reeded edge 1795 cents are known).

A few hundred Liberty Cap cents have been certified, though some varieties are scarce or rare. Coins are classified as either Brown or Red-Brown, based on surface color. No proofs are known and all coins were produced at Philadelphia. Prices are moderate for a few dates and varieties up to grades of Very Fine, but advance steadily above that to expensive as XF40 and finer. Red-Brown examples have modest premiums over Red pieces, though prices increase for coins graded Select Uncirculated to very expensive as Gem. Several coins are expensive at all grades, including the 1793 Beaded Border (extremely expensive as XF and finer), the 1794 Head of 1793, and the 1795 Plain Edge and Lettered Edge Jefferson Head issues. All examples of the rare 1794 Starred Reverse and the 1795 Reeded Edge coins are very expensive to extremely expensive.

Designer: Joseph Wright (thick planchet, 1793-1795, prepared by Robert Scot; thin planchet, 1795-1796, prepared by John Smith Gardner)
Circulation Mintage: high 918,521 (1794), low 11,056 (1793)
Proof Mintage: None
Denomintion: $0.01 One cent (01/100)
Diameter: ±29 mm; 1793-1795 edge, ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR followed by a single leaf; 1795-1796, plain edge. There are four known reeded edge 1795 cents, possibly an experimental or trial issue.
Metal content: 100% copper
Weight: 1793-1795, ±13.48 grams; 1795-1796 thin planchet, ±10.89 grams
Varieties: Extensively studied, many known, including 1794 Head of 1793, Head of 1794, and Head of 1795; 1794 Starred Reverse, with 94 five-point stars interspersed with the rim dentils; 1794 No Fraction Bar; 1795 Lettered, Plain, and Reeded Edge; 1795 Plain and Lettered Edge “Jefferson Head” (so named because of a forehead on Liberty that resembles that of the Founding Father); and other device variations, many for 1794-dated coins. Dr. Edward Maris, in his 1869 book on 1794 cents, identified the varieties with colorful names such as Young Head, Mint Marked Head, The Coquette, Fallen 4, Abrupt Hair, Patagonian, Amatory Face, and Venus Marina.

Additional Resources :

Coin Encyclopedia:
Early American Coppers:
Walter BreenÕs 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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