Colonial State Coppers by Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
Colonial coins and Federal issues are entirely different beasts, and when you’re first getting into colonials, it can be a steep learning curve. And while we can’t make you an expert in one short article, we can give you a solid introduction to a section of this enigmatic area of numismatics.
While there are many other colonial series, some of the most widely collected are the state copper coinages of the 1780s.
The Story of State Coppers
Three states – Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts – plus Vermont (which became the 14th state in 1791) issued government-approved copper coinage between 1785 and 1788, while the Articles of Confederation were in effect. With the exception of the Massachusetts cents and half cents, the overall narrative for each is fairly similar.
The United States needed money. Following the Revolutionary War, emergency paper money issues couldn’t be redeemed for hard currency, so they weren’t accepted in commerce at face value. It was an economy foreign to us in the days of credit cards and virtual wallets. If you wanted to buy something that cost 19 cents and handed over 50 cents, you had to hope the merchant had exact change, which was hard to do since there wasn’t enough small change to go around.
Of course, this was before we had dollars and cents, and British halfpence ruled as the smallest unit of change. However, they were widely counterfeited, to the point that there were more underweight counterfeits circulating than genuine pieces. This meant that they commonly weren’t accepted at face value either, creating even more problems in commerce.
Hoping to help the situation and get reliable, genuine coinage into circulation, individuals in multiple states submitted petitions for the right to mint coppers. In the aforementioned areas, these petitions were approved, and minting began.
However, all of these private mints ran into problems.
None were able to meet the original legislated amount of coins required, and most ended up producing underweight coins. The state issues were also heavily counterfeited, many at a New York mint called Machin’s Mills, whose business was almost exclusively counterfeiting. Ultimately, some were more accepted in commerce than others, but none solved the problem.
The mints also faced the issue of how to get them into circulation. Without banks, they had to get creative. For example, it’s believed that bulk lots of New Jersey coppers were made available for purchase.
In 1787, with the imminent ratification of the Constitution of the United States, the federal government finally had the right to mint coins. They gave the contract to the mint in Connecticut, run by James Jarvis, and ordered 300 tons of Fugio coppers. They ran into significant problems trying to find a supply of copper and ultimately failed to even begin to fulfill the contract. Rightfully deemed a failure, the contract was terminated and with it ended all attempts at contract coinage.
There were many other types issued during this time that were unauthorized by state governments, such as the Nova Eborac coppers, Nova Constellatio coppers, and Immune Columbia pieces. For the sake of brevity, this article will focus on government-authorized issues.
Grading for colonial coppers and federal issues is entirely different.
First off, colonial coins weren’t usually struck with great amounts of detail, especially in the highest parts of the design. As a result, a Mint State coin can appear only Fine or Very Fine to an untrained eye.
The completeness of the design should also be taken into consideration. Some issues were frequently struck on small planchets, resulting in the outer elements of the design being lost from most specimens. Finding a full, well-centered strike should be the goal.
In addition, planchet quality is a huge factor in the desirability of colonial coppers. Most were produced in small facilities using less-than-stellar copper, and as a result, have many issues. Planchet cracks are very common and can be rather dramatic.
Another important aspect, familiar to collectors of early copper, is color. An even chocolate color is most desirable; dark or splotchy pieces may be discounted.
Overall, the numerical grade doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a coin. Planchet quality and color aren’t taken into consideration, and these can make a world of difference on a colonial piece. In many cases, you may find a significantly lower grade that’s more desirable than a high-grade piece.
The moral of the story? Don’t trust that a piece should be more expensive due to a high grade on the label. The saying “Buy the coin, not the holder” is particularly relevant for colonials.
Die Varieties Are King
Most state coinages were only minted for a few years, so collecting them by date results in an incredibly short set. However, dies were engraved by hand, resulting in many different die varieties within each series. This is how most specialists collect them.
Each series has been carefully catalogued by variety over the past 100 years, though all use a slightly different system. Where Vermont coppers use RR numbers, New Jersey coppers have Maris numbers. They’re named after the authors who pioneered research into each series and first created an effective numbering system.
Massachusetts Cents and Half Cents
Massachusetts coppers are the outliers of state coinages. All others were contract coinage – meaning an individual was paid to mint and deliver coins – but Massachusetts believed it would be more profitable to set up a government-owned operation. They rejected the proposals they received and built their own mint. Based on their calculations, they expected to make a profit of £9,800 from minting £20,000 of coppers.
Also unique to Massachusetts, denominations were inscribed on the coins. They followed federal laws passed in August of 1786 that specified weights for the cent and half cent, making these coins the first to bear the word “cent”. Other states had already begun minting when these laws passed and didn’t bother changing their coinages to fit them.
The obverse shows an Indian with the legend “Commonwealth”. On the reverse is an eagle with the legend “Massachusetts”, and the denomination inscribed on a shield covering the eagle’s chest.
However, even Massachusetts’ state-owned mint failed to turn a profit. After striking only £939 worth of coppers, the state had spent over £2,100. Realizing that their initial calculations were way off, they decided to finish minting the copper they had on hand and then cease operations. Massachusetts had actually begun negotiations for a contract coinage when it became clear that the Constitution would pass and prohibit state coinages.
Spearheading the coinage operation in Vermont was Reuben Harmon Jr., who petitioned the government in 1785 for a two-year contract to mint coppers.
Vermont coppers were issued for a total of four years – 1785 to 1788 – and minted with two drastically different designs. The original designs are now known as landscape coppers. The obverse shows the sun rising behind the Green Mountains with a plow in the foreground, and the reverse has an eye with a glory of rays, similar to the Nova Constellatio patterns and coppers.
These looked very different from other copper coins in circulation, and because merchants weren’t familiar enough with them they weren’t very well accepted. When Harmon asked for the contract to be extended another eight years in 1786, the legislation was changed to require a different design.
The new pieces were modeled after British halfpence and are all but identical; they feature a very similar bust on the obverse and an almost exact copy of seated Britannia on the reverse. The idea was that this design would be familiar to merchants and be more widely accepted, and it remained until production stopped in 1788.
The legends are the key to quickly identifying a Vermont copper of any year, although landscape coppers are a distinctive design. All pieces bear “Vermon” somewhere on the coin. It may be as part of a longer word, such as “Vermontensium” on some landscape coppers, but it can be found somewhere within the legend.
New Jersey Coppers
The New Jersey minting operation was even more disjointed than its counterparts in other states.
Four men were part of the original petition in 1786, but it was soon revealed that one of them, Walter Mould, had been arrested for counterfeiting in England, and later abandoned his family when coming to America. Not wanting to be associated with him, the other three requested that the contract be separated, granting them rights to mint 2/3 of the coppers and Mould the other third. The request was granted, and two separate mints were set up.
Even so, the relationships between these four men were not amicable. There were multiple lawsuits and debts owed amongst them, to the point that one ended up in debtors’ prison. The mint operated by the three partners downsized around 1788, selling off most of their equipment and moving to a smaller location. They no longer had the ability to produce new blanks, so they began stamping New Jersey coppers over others pulled from circulation.
The design, as mandated by legislation, was quite distinctive; the obverse features a horse head and plow, with a shield on the reverse. These were the first circulating coins to feature E PLURIBUS UNUM. While “New Jersey” is nowhere to be found on the coins, the obverse legend is the Latinized name for the state – Nova Cæsarea.
Overall, it’s believed that New Jersey coppers were produced from 1786 to 1790, though no new dies were produced after 1788. The first thorough reference on them was written in 1881 by Dr. Edward Maris , which established the numbering system used today, known as Maris numbers.
Connecticut had the advantage of a skilled engraver – Abel Buell. He, along with seven others, formed the Company for Coining Coppers, which was given the state contract to produce coinage. Their intentions were to improve the state of commerce in the state, and they – initially – worked toward that goal. The intent was to keep the designs as consistent as possible so that counterfeits could be easily detected.
They ran into problems when production outpaced the speed at which Buell could engrave new dies. The easy answer was to hire more engravers, but the consistency would suffer. Instead, Buell got creative. He invented a system using hubs, though small details still had to be engraved by hand. It ultimately didn’t help production times and he went back to using punches. However, decades later in 1837, the United States Mint successfully adopted the hubbing technique.
Connecticut coppers, like portrait Vermont coppers, were styled after British halfpence. They feature almost identical devices, copied expertly by Buell. The telltale legend on these coins is “AUCTORI CONNEC” on the obverse, Latin for “Authority of Connecticut”.
Over time, James Jarvis bought his way into the Company for Coining Coppers, and by mid-1787, he owned over 50% of the company. Contrary to the original partners, Jarvis’s main goal was to make a profit, and it would seem that he entered with his eye on a much bigger prize than state coinage: a federal coining contract.
In 1787, it was clear that the Constitution would soon be ratified and the federal government would gain the right to mint coinage. Multiple people submitted proposals, including James Jarvis of the Connecticut Mint and Matthias Ogden, one of the partners at the New Jersey Mint. Ogden’s proposal was superior, but Jarvis bribed Col. William Duer, head of the Board of Treasury, and was awarded the contract. He was to deliver 300 tons of coppers, with a very specific delivery schedule.
He was given all of the raw copper in the government’s possession, but it wasn’t nearly enough to produce the required amount of coins. Failing to find more in America, he traveled to Europe searching for copper and financial backing, to no avail.
Ultimately, 4.4 tons of Fugio coppers were delivered way behind schedule. The government quickly realized that this was not going to work and terminated the contract. In the following years, as the establishment of a national Mint was debated, those who witnessed the Fugio debacle were quick to denounce any suggestion of contract coinage. Had Jarvis not failed so miserably, our country’s coinage could have taken a very different turn.
The Fugios feature a sundial and sun on the obverse, with the inscriptions “Fugio” and “Mind Your Business”, and 13 interlinked circles on the reverse with “We Are One” in the center. The design came from the Continental currency designed by Benjamin Franklin that began circulating in 1775.
Colonials are one of the sectors of numismatics that is still in the process of making its way online. Most thorough references are only available as books, some of which can be hard to track down. The Colonial Coin Collectors Club (C4) has a lending library dedicated to colonial coins, and the ANA has an extensive general lending library. Either of these is an option to see how much you want to pursue the complex world of colonial coppers.