CoinWeek Podcast #133: Early US Copper Planchets (with Bill Eckberg)

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This week on the CoinWeek Podcast, Early American Coppers (EAC) President Bill Eckberg joins us to talk about how the United States Mint acquired its copper for early US cents and half cents and how the journey from England to America might have impacted the quality of the coins struck during this period.

CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan asks Bill to give his insights into how long early US copper coins truly circulated and whether it makes sense today for collectors to pursue early copper cents and half cents that have been net graded.

It’s an informative half hour spent with one of the hobby’s leading experts on early United States copper coins. You won’t want to miss it!

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The following is a transcript of Charles’ conversation with Bill:
 

Charles Morgan: I hope you’re having a good week. This is CoinWeek editor, Charles Morgan, welcome you to the CoinWeek Podcast, brought to you by our good friends at PCGS. For more than 30 years, PCGS has been a trusted partner to the building of some of the greatest coin collections ever assembled. With our tamper-evident and secure holder, PCGS has kept the timeless treasures of American and world numismatics safe and has evolved their product from the innovative rattler holder, remember that one? To the present a clear and secure holder that is now being augmented with advanced technology to give you additional peace of mind and security. To learn more about PCGS great products, visit www.pcgs.com.

My friend Bill Eckberg, president of EAC, is back on the CoinWeek Podcast this week. We’ve had many great conversations on-air covering his area of collecting specialty half cents. This time, we cast a wider net and talking about how the US Mint sourced its copper for our first cents and half cents and in what condition that metal was delivered by the time it made its transatlantic voyage.

Bill’s insights will help you improve your quest for great early copper coins. For you students of early mint history, you will enjoy the next 30-minute conversation, I promise. All this next on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Charles: Hi, Bill. Thanks for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Bill Eckberg: Good to be here, Charles. Good to talk to you again.

Charles: In studying early copper coins, one of the things collectors might discover is that early copper coin planchets play a large role in determining the quality of the coin that’s struck. Given that the United States Mint was more focused on the production of silver and gold coin blanks at the time, the production of copper coins was reliant on transatlantic trade between the US government and private businesses in England. So, I wanted to ask you to guide us through the mint’s procurement of copper starting in 1793 and how these various sources of copper impacted the quality of half cents and large cents struck in the early days of the US Mint.

Bill: Sure, I’ll be glad to do that. I probably should mention right now since we’re in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic that copper kills coronavirus. So, if you’re a copper collector, spend some time with your coins. If you’re a silver or gold collector, get some copper coins and spend time with it. It can save your life. But having said that, we know that beginning in 1792, the mint in Philadelphia bought copper locally. They actually took out ads in broadsides and newspapers for people to bring copper to the mint and they would melt it down.

One of our members, Ray Williams, recently found an ad from a 1792 September broadside in Philadelphia that said the mint was paying the highest prices for copper. They initially started that way and eventually went to buying sheet copper directly. But the purpose, of course, initially was because they wanted to get minting something. They were not legally allowed to mint gold or silver coins until 1794 at least, because all of the people at the mint who had to handle precious metals, gold or silver, had to post a bond equal to several years’ salary before they were allowed to handle gold or silver. That would be Tristram Dalton, the Treasurer, Albion Cox, the Assayer, although he wasn’t hired until 1794, and Henry Voigt, the Chief Coiner. Can you imagine having to pay the government several years’ salary in advance to get a job? Scary times. We think we’re in scary times now. That was really scary.

Charles: They could have, I think, Bill, of a government that was formed by and for the wealthiest people in the country.

Bill: Well, exactly. Of course, in Europe, if you made coins that were too light for the King’s purposes, you would be executed. We didn’t do that here. If you were a counterfeiter, you were branded and had your ear cut. We didn’t do those things in the United States. But we made it expensive for you to get a job at the mint.

Anyway, in 1792, they had purchased a little over three tons of scrap copper, which would have been enough to coin a little over 213,000 cents. They didn’t of course make cents in 1792, except for a few patterns. In 1793, they purchased 980 pounds and 10 ounces of scrap copper, and that would have been enough for another 33,000 coins. In 1793, they actually made 112,212 cents and 31,934 half cents. So, they didn’t use anywhere near the amount of copper they had on hand at the time.

Now, the copper was not just used for copper planchets. It was also used for the machinery that they were building and some of it would have been saved to alloy with gold and silver. But they had on hand more than enough copper to make the coins that they made in 1793.

In 1794, they purchased a little over 24 tons of copper, all of that came from Europe in sheet form. That again was more than enough to mint the cents and half cents that they made in 1794 and some leftover for alloying with gold and silver.

In 1795, they purchased almost four tons of copper, which was way more than they used to strike cents and half cents that year.

In 1796, they purchased almost 25 tons of copper. Again, way more than they needed to strike the coins.

But in 1796, they did things differently. Most of the copper they bought was sheet copper, but they also bought it in the form of tokens from the Talbot, Allum, and Lee Company, which were importers, and they use those primarily to strike half cents. Almost all of the half cents made in 1796 and 1797 were struck on those Talbot, Allum, and Lee tokens and sometimes you can see how bits of the token underneath it makes for very interesting-looking coins. They also bought planchets from a company in England called Governor & Company. These are often called Coltman blanks after the name of the company’s owner, William Coltman. Those were supposedly rough and discolored and bent convex that they were used. The result was that the coins made from these blanks, looked like the border on one side was filed off and rounded down. So, consequently, the mint wasn’t very happy with those.

In 1797 and thereafter until 1834, they purchased the blanks from Boulton in England. The mint liked them and they purchased those at a cost of about 64 and a half cents per hundred so the mint could actually strike coins and make a profit, which was important because the mint lost money every time they made a gold or silver coin.

Charles: Bill, since the mint in Philadelphia is ordering copper from England and the copper does not arrive in America quickly, it has to cross the Atlantic on a boat. And since copper is heavy, it’s stored in the hole of these merchant chips. These wooden merchant chips. These holes are damp places, they leak, and the copper being a highly reactive metal exposed to these conditions. You also have in Philadelphia at the time a series of yellow fever outbreaks, some of which closed the ports in Philadelphia, leaving the copper that was shipped to sit in this environment at port even longer. Did this reduce the quality of the metal to the point where some of the copper was unusable or so that the resulting coins were impaired?

Bill: That’s an interesting question. In fact, there was a letter– I don’t have in front of me right now that the Director of the mint wrote to Boulton complaining about the way that some of the planchets they received had been shipped. They had apparently been too deep in the hold of the ship. These were wooden ships, so they leaked and planchets being very heavy, were used as ballast, just like ballast stones to keep the ship upright. It did happen, the water leaked in. It’s seawater, so it’s a little corrosive. It is a little hard on copper. There is a letter from the Director to Boulton complaining about the quality of some of the planchets because they were discolored and a little bit rough from the shipment. But he said that what they did was, they just had to clean them and then they used them anyway. As far as cleaning them is concerned, presumably they used vinegar to do that and that would get rid of some of it. Some of the corroding, of course, the roughness of the planchets would be smoothed out in the striking.

As far as we know, there were no planchets that were received that were too bad to use. If they really were bad, they could have melted them and use them as an alloy for golden silver. So, even though planchets did get damaged in shipment, they weren’t destroyed and were usable that way.

Charles: Now, why did the Mint go from rolling its own copper in the beginning to buying planchets?

Bill: I think the main reason that they did it was the fact that the rolling mills that the mint had for rolling the strip into the right thickness for coinage weren’t very good. They didn’t have very good steel. They may have even used copper rollers. Nobody really knows for sure. But the quality of the rolling mills wasn’t good and they wanted to use that exclusively for golden and silver. So, basically, to save the rolling mills, they used imported copper strip and copper planchets.

Charles: Did the mint find a way to become self-sufficient in the production of cent and half-cent planchets as its technology improved in the 1830s?

Bill: Well, not really. They continued to purchase the planchets until they stopped making half cents and large cents but after 1834, they purchased them domestically. They had some companies in the US that they purchased planchets from. But they continued using Boulton planchets from 1797 through 1834, and the quality was very good.

Charles: Bill, you’ve reviewed quite a number of copper coins and looking at the high-grade survivors that are around today, what’s your takeaway as to the quality of the planchets that the mint typically used to strike these coins?

Bill: I think the quality of the planchets was pretty good. The real weaknesses from what I’ve seen is that half cents generally come very well struck and they’re all nice planchets and they’re very attractive in high grade. Large cents, however, are almost never fully struck. I think that the mint screw press just wasn’t quite capable of striking a large cent as effectively as it could be. I did a study of the large cent dies and I had a very, very hard time finding a fully struck large set of the Draped Bust type to use as an example of how they could be struck. So, I really think that the mints presses, until 1836 when they went to steam power and use a completely different mechanism for striking coins– I think until then, they did the best they could with what they had to work with.

In the United States in the 18th century, we were really using 16th- and 17th-century technology from Europe. We were at least 100 and 150 years behind the technology in Europe until 1835 and 1836, when we actually learned what they were doing in Europe.

Charles: How did the War of 1812 impact the mint’s ability to acquire copper? Seems to me like trading with the enemy would have been a tricky proposition for both parties.

Bill: There actually was a shipment that was on the way from England when war broke out, and we got that. Those were the planchets that they used to strike coins from 1812 through 1814. Fortunately, they got a lot of them. In 1815, when the war ended, they were out of planchets, so they didn’t make any cents or half cents in 1815. In fact, that’s the only year in the history of the United States when the cent was not struck at all.

At the end of the year, they got some planchets in and they coined a lot of large cents in early 1816. Surprisingly, or perhaps surprisingly to a lot of people, those large cents that they created at the beginning of 1816 were all dated 1814. They were struck from leftover dies that had been made a couple of years before. But after that, Boulton was back to delivering planchets to the US and it was full speed ahead.

Charles: When you look at these 1814-dated cents struck in 1816, do they show apparent die rust or other markers that prove their age?

Bill: Actually, no, they don’t. The reason that we know that is because of the sizes of the surviving populations of 1814 and 1816 cents. This was discovered about 20 years ago by Ron Manley that there are way too many 1814 large cents and way too few 1816 large cents relative to the numbers that we thought had been made, but that if all of those delivered in February of 1816 were dated 1814, then the numbers work out correctly. We do know however which ones were struck that year and it’s the Plain 4 Variety. There’s a cross of 4 Variety and a Plain 4 Variety of 1814, and it was the Plain 4s that were struck in 1816.

Charles: Well, I think that goes to a tradition that the mint had at that point of using dies for as long as they could, even if they were breaking the rules. So, it must be difficult to get a true handle on the precise mintages per date of those early copper coins?

Bill: That’s correct. Really, the only way that you can get the approximate mintage of the number of coins with a particular date on them, is by studying the surviving population. We know that that the mint struck 1803 dated dollars in 1804. That’s why there’s a report that 1804 dollars 4 were made. They weren’t dated 1804. We know that 1797 half cents were made in 1799 and 1800. We know that the 1798 cents were made in 1799. And we can tell that because the coins share a common die between the two dates and by looking at the changes in the die state as the coins are produced, we can tell that some 1798 large cents were struck after some 1799 March cents. It’s really an interesting kind of study. It’s the sort of thing that keeps copper collectors off the streets if you will.

Charles: We don’t encounter copper coins in circulation much anymore today. The US Mint moved to the “zincoln” composition in 1982. And our modern cents deteriorate fairly quickly through use and exposure to the environment. Did early copper coins fare better in their circulation and use? We do see many examples that were recovered with environmental damage due to being buried in the soil or in the walls of buildings, but did most of the copper coins that circulated fare better than modern-date zincolns?

Bill: Well, they circulated these coins until 1857. And we know that at that time, there were a lot of very early ones still in circulation because certain favorite coin dealers in Philadelphia were allowed to go through the copper coins that were turned in at the mint and save the ones they thought they could make money off of. So, the earliest ones are actually more common than we would think they would be based on the sizes of the mintages. We also know that the mint continued to receive large cents and half cents for many, many years after that. Harry Salyards recently discovered that the mint was still redeeming large cents in 1954. After that, they didn’t say that they were getting large cents specifically, they just said they were getting cents for re-coining. But they still listed large cents as something that they were taking in as late as 1954. So, at least in my lifetime, they were still redeeming large cents. People still have them.

Charles: Let’s take a large cent and a half cent. What should collectors look for in terms of planchet quality at the different collectible grades?

Bill: Well, if you’re fortunate enough to collect them in high grade, we expect the planchets to be really, really nice. We expect no corrosion, no porosity, not many bumps. Copper is a fairly soft metal and got banged around a lot. So, a lot of them got scratches and bumps. If you’re looking at coins in extremely fine or better, you want them to be really, really nice. If they’re in very fine range, they’ve had some wear, they’ve circulated for a number of years, and you expect not quite perfect surfaces, but they still should be attractive.

Once the coins get down to About Good, you know, they can be pretty beat up. We don’t really criticize the planchets very much in coins that are of low-grade. So, the quality of the planchets that you should expect pretty much is grade dependent. What looks really bad on an XF coin wouldn’t look bad at all on a good coin.

Charles: At the same time, do you think that it’s a good idea to buy net-graded early copper coins?

Bill: Yeah, it depends on what you’re willing to pay. An XF coin that’s net graded down to fine, for example, would have significant problems and most people would not pay as much for that as they would pay for a nice fine coin that doesn’t have any problems. So, you really have to be careful what you pay for a thing like that. That certainly is worth collecting, there’s no problem with that.

Charles: Well, Bill, thanks for joining us, always informative.

Bill: You too. Stay safe and stay well, and take care of yourself and your family.


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