Border Incidents, Part One

Posted by by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 6/1/2007

David Lange delves into the history behind the many different border designs that have appeared in American coinage.

David LangeThe earliest coins of ancient times had extremely simple designs, typically featuring only a central device of some kind and no lettering or border treatment. Inscriptions came a bit later, and the use of some sort of border design was not employed until it was discovered that gold and silver coins lacking such a feature were subject to clipping or shaving of the precious metal from the coins’ peripheries. The border on a coin thus served as a warning device to anyone receiving it to look for signs that the coin had been reduced through such fraud. With the introduction in the 16th century of milled, or machine-made coinage, minters applied additional designs to the edges of their coins as an even more effective safeguard against clipping and shaving. Border treatments in a variety of styles continue to be used to the present day, but, since the advent of edge devices, coin border design has been more a matter of choice than necessity.

Most coins of America’s colonial period featured denticulated, or toothed, borders. These were the simplest element to apply to a coin die, as the engraver (or, more likely, his assistant) could use a wedge-shaped puncheon to work his way around the entire periphery of the die until a circle was completed. If a gap remained upon completing the circle, he had the choice of either overlapping two denticles with his puncheon or simply leaving a small void. It would scarcely be noticed by those handling the coins in circulation, though it would certainly draw the attention of keen-eyed numismatists generations later.

Such borders did serve a utilitarian purpose, though it had nothing to do with security. Even then, it was considered desirable for coins to have a slightly raised border to facilitate stacking. This was more of an issue with precious metal coins, but it’s conceivable that coppers also were stacked from time to time for counting purposes. It’s doubtful that the coins and tokens of the colonial and early republic years were ever run through a milling machine to compress their edges and raise a border, but this became standard practice upon the opening of the United States Mint in 1792. By raising, or “upsetting,” the edge in a milling machine, the metal moved more easily in filling the border design. Even then, the resulting border was quite shallow, with the consequence that most uncirculated USA coins struck before the 1830s have signs of friction or rubbing on the higher points of their central devices.

Denticulated borders were the norm for United States gold and silver coins for the next 40 years, but the copper issues showed a greater variation in style. The cents and half cents of 1793 have borders comprised of a circle of separated beads inset from the coins’ edges. They show subtly raised rims as the result of compression during the edge lettering operation that preceded the actual striking of the coins by obverse and reverse dies.

The cents of 1794 display toothed borders, these denticles typically being wedge-shaped, like little slices of pie with rounded tips that point toward the coins’ centers. In most instances, these denticles are fairly short, the engraver having punched them near the die’s edge. Some dies, however, reveal very long and deeply impressed denticles, and the coins from these dies typically resisted wear more effectively. Easily the most interesting border seen on 1794 cents is found on the reverse die employed to strike Sheldon variety 48. The original border was comprised of 94 tiny stars arranged in a circle. Before any pieces were struck, however, a conventional border of deep denticles was applied over the stars, most of which still remain visible between or underlying the denticles on S-48 cents.

Beginning in 1795, the denticles lost their wedge shape and have parallel sides with rounded tips. This change was made to the silver coinage beginning in 1796, while all of the gold issues from their inception in 1795 have the newer style denticles with parallel sides. As with so many features of our early coinage, the reason for this change was not documented, but knowing that coin dies typically erode from their peripheries inward suggests that parallel denticles were less likely to reveal such erosion.

While the earliest dies of the U. S. Mint were likely prepared using puncheons that featured just a single denticle, researchers have suggested that gang puncheons were later prepared for the placement of multiple denticles in a single blow of the engraver’s hammer. Of course, dies of different diameters would require separate gang puncheons, as the arcs would be of different radii.

Since so many United States coins produced during the Mint’s 40 years of open collar coining were struck slightly off-center or from misaligned dies, it appears to have been the engraver’s practice of applying fairly long denticles so that at least some part of the border would still appear on such irregular coins. The need for long denticles was eliminated when the close collar was adopted in stages during the 1820s-30s, as this held the planchets firmly in place. So long as the collar was properly aligned by the die-setter, the resulting coins would have distinct, well-raised rims and borders of uniform appearance.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.