Q. David Bowers: The Curious 1817 Cent With 15 Stars

By Q. David BowersCo-Founder, Stack’s Bowers …..

I have always liked large copper cents. First minted in 1793, they were made continuously until 1857, with the solitary exception of 1815. Back in the early 1950s I began to build a library of numismatic reference books, and by 1955 I had all the standard works, including Early American Cents, by Dr. William H. Sheldon (cent varieties from 1793 to 1814), published by Harper in 1949, and United States Copper Cents 1816-1857, by Howard R. Newcomb, published by Stack’s in 1944.

Dr. William H. Sheldon said:

Old copper, like beauty, appears to possess a certain intrinsic quality or charm which for many people is irresistible. An experienced dealer in American numismatic materials recently wrote as follows: ‘Sooner or later, if a collector stays at the business long enough, it is three to one his interest in all the other series will flag and he will focus his attention on the early cents.’

Gold, silver, and even bronze appear to be very much the same wherever you see them. Coins made of these metals become “old money” and “interesting”, like the stuff seen in museums. But copper seems to possess an almost living warmth and a personality not encountered in any other metal. The big cent is something more than old money. Look at a handful of the cents dated before 1815, when they contained relatively pure copper. You see rich shades of green, red, brown, yellow, and even deep ebony; together with blending of these not elsewhere matched in nature save perhaps in autumn leaves. If the light is good (direct sunlight is preferable) you will possibly observe that no two of the coins are of quite the same color.

In time I handled most of the 1793 to 1857 cent varieties by private treaty or at auction. I believe I was the first, many years ago, to point out that the 1839/6 overdate, described by Newcomb as a die crack, was indeed an overdated 1836 die. The 1950s were years of finding many new things, not only on my part but by Ken Bressett, Eric P. Newman, Walter Breen, Jim Ruddy, John J. Ford, Jr., and a half dozen others who had an intense interest in numismatic research.

The later years of copper cents as described by Newcomb have been more widely collected than the earlier ones, as they are more plentiful and also for the most part more affordable. There are many interesting stories about these cents, such as the famous Randall Hoard of Uncirculated cents containing certain varieties of the 1816 to 1820 years.

Indeed, there are lingering mysteries remaining to be solved or facts to be discovered.

Why are cents of the year 1823, for which no mintage records have been found, so rare in Mint State? A few thousand or more are in worn grades, but the number of choice or finer Uncirculated coins can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Why are Braided Hair cents of the 1841 to 1849 years hardly ever seen with most of the original mint red color remaining, while red cents of 1850 to 1856 are common, followed by 1857 which is inexplicably rare with full color?

A Favorite Cent

Perhaps my very favorite cent among those of the 1816 to 1857 years is the 1817 with 15 obverse stars. Designated as N-16, this curious coin defies explanation. Elsewhere in numismatics we have the 1828 half cent and the 1832 half eagle with 12 instead of the correct 13 stars, but the 1817 N-16 is off by two in its star count.


Probably someone was daydreaming at the Mint. Or, could it have been intentional, as per this published years later:

A portion of these [cents] struck in 1817 had 15 stars, evidently following a plan since adopted by law with reference to the national flag, i.e., adding a star for every state admitted to the Union. It was found to be impracticable and was not continued. (W.H. Butler, “American Cents, Tokens, &c.,” Jamestown Journal, Jamestown, NY, an article that appeared earlier in the Buffalo Morning Express)

In July 2015, a marvelous MS-64 RB 1817 N-16 cent was consigned to Stack’s Bowers Galleries as part of the Twin Leaf Collection. Cataloged by John Pack, it was described as follows (in part):

Highly lustrous and eye-catching surfaces. Pale steel overtones are seen on the obverse, which is otherwise almost perfectly blended faded mint red and medium brown. A small carbon spot at Liberty’s nose is the one useful identifier worthy of mention. The reverse exhibits much more original color, with a bit of faint violet iridescence in places. A couple of small spots are noted on this side as well, but all such marks are quickly forgiven on this lovely coin, one of the finest 15-Star examples. Struck from an early state of the dies, with the obverse in particular being quite sharp as it was a new die. All star centers show and the radial lines of each are well defined. The reverse is a second appearance of the 1817 N-1 die, and shows a little more wear but it is still in the “perfect” state for this variety. The reverse is aligned a little to the right, typical of the variety, and the leftmost dentils are consequentially broad. …The line of past owners contains several illustrious figures known for their excellent taste where choice large cents and other coins are concerned.

The list of these past owners in the Twin Leaf catalog read as follows:

Ex George Woodside; New York Coin and Stamp Co., April 1892; Benjamin H. Collins; B. Max Mehl (personal collection); Emanuel Taylor, Roy E. Naftzger, Jr.; T. James Clarke; Abe Kosoff, April 1956:157; Oliver E. Futter; Louis Helfenstein; C. Douglas Smith; Herman Halpern, Stack’s, March 1988:351; Anthony Terranova; Roy E. Naftzger, Jr.; Bowers and Merena, August 2001:22.

I was intrigued by this coin. Never in over 60 years of looking had I seen one with even close to this amount of original red mint color! To my eyes—combining grade, color, and eye appeal—it was magnificent. The finest known? Such designations have bounced around for a long time – like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” As it was far and away the finest I had ever seen, I kept my paddle in the air and was the successful bidder.


  1. I tend to agree with Butler’s explanation for the presence of 15 stars. From 1795 to 1818 the flag not only had 15 stars but also the same number of stripes. It’s thus reasonable to infer that the Mint would match that count, at least for this particular issue.

    By the mid-1810s it was apparent that regularly adding stripes would be impractical. The Flag Act of 1818 permanently reverted the design to show 13 stripes while continuing to add a star for each new state.

    To the best of my knowledge no analogous provision was made to limit the number of stars on coins; however it would again be a reasonable assumption that the Mint would follow suit in practice if not in law.

  2. I never new that there was a coin, the cents that had 15 stars on it. I would love to have one,or more of these coinage. I enjoy learning more about the fariety of coins that the US have printed.


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