The copper cents of 1793-1857 were the first United States coins to attract the
attention of collectors in this country. Hobbyists both casual and serious were
assembling date sets by the mid-19th Century, and this activity grew exponentially
after the series’ demise in 1857. By that time numismatists had become aware of
the many varieties that resulted from the use of hand tools in completing each die,
and large cents were also the first United States coins to be sought extensively
by varieties. A number of books and monographs were published over the years describing
and classifying these varieties, though all have since been superseded by the references
While the number of persons collecting large cents by date has likely declined in
favor of type collecting, the intensity and competition among variety specialists
has grown steadily. The traditional favorites remain the early cents of 1793-1814,
but the middle dates of 1816-39 now command much greater attention than in previous
generations. Due to greater standardization in the die sinking process after 1839,
the late dates through 1857 are far more difficult to attribute by varieties, and
this has limited their popularity to the most dedicated and patient of collectors.
Still, the rare varieties are prized, particularly in the higher grades.
NGC will assign Sheldon (S) numbers to all cents from 1793 through 1796. Dr. William
H. Sheldon’s numbers are sequential for the entire series. For example, the last
variety of 1795 is S-80, while the first variety of 1796 is S-81. Varieties that
Sheldon considered so rare as to be non-collectable (NC) were assigned numbers that
begin anew with each date. In other words, the first non-collectable variety for
each date is NC-1, followed by NC-2, NC-3, etc. While the discovery of additional
specimens has reduced the rarity ratings for a number of these formerly non-collectable
varieties, Sheldon’s NC numbers are still used to identify them. Some collectors
still attribute early cents using Sheldon’s book, but it is far easier to use the
more recent reference by William C. Noyes. This employs the Sheldon numbering system,
but it offers superior photographs and attribution points. The posthumously published
Walter Breen large cent encyclopedia (edited by Mark Borckardt and Del Bland) features
good photos, too, as well as more up-to-date rarity ratings, condition census and
pedigree listings. The Breen numbering system, though superior to Sheldon’s, is
not likely to be adopted, due to widespread familiarity with the Sheldon numbers.
Nevertheless, each Breen variety is clearly cross-referenced to Sheldon.