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Coronet Head Cents (1816-1839)

Coronet Head, 1816-1839

In 1814, as Napoleon’s troops prepared for their final battle against the armies of England and her continental allies, England’s second war—against the United States—seemed far removed from her vital national interests. Naval defeats on the Great Lakes made it impossible to successfully prosecute the war, and Jackson’s defense of New Orleans had dampened the Foreign Office’s enthusiasm for a military victory. During the two years of hostilities, however, while victory eluded the British, harassing actions continued on the high seas and commerce was disrupted whenever possible, affecting many aspects of American life.

By 1814, U.S. copper coinage had also become a casualty of the war. For more than twenty years the Mint had purchased blank, copper planchets from the English manufacturer, Boulton & Watt of Liverpool. Early in the war supplies stopped, and by 1814 the last of the imported copper blanks had been turned into cents of the “Classic Head” design. Although no copper planchets were available for coinage in 1815, this idle year proved useful, as it allowed a new obverse design to be engraved for cents and marked the beginning of a new era of mechanization and uniformity.

The Mint had been harshly criticized since it struck its first coins in 1793. As an institution it had become increasingly sensitive to public ridicule. Shortly after the Classic Head cent was introduced in 1808, critics pointed out that the fillet on Liberty’s head had not been worn by women in Classical times but was given as a prize to boy athletes who had won town games. Desiring a new design, but wishing to avoid further embarrassment, Mint officials bypassed Assistant Engraver John Reich (who they had previously chosen over Chief Engraver Robert Scot to create the Classic Head) and assigned Scot to redesign the cent. Scot’s creation went into production in 1816 and was a resounding artistic failure, but it did have one redeeming quality: no one could mistake the new Liberty for a boy athlete.

The new design featured an enlarged head of Liberty. The fillet holding the hair on the previous Classic Head series was replaced by a coronet and the word LIBERTY was added in relief. The reverse was essentially unchanged and retained the “Christmas wreath” of Reich’s 1808 design. While generally referred to as the “Coronet” type, this is not a universally accepted name. Some collectors prefer “Matron Head.” Dr. William Sheldon, author of the standard reference for cents struck from 1793 to 1814, scathingly remarked that the figure of Liberty on these coins “resembled the head of an obese ward boss instead of a lady.”

During the 24 years of the Coronet design (1816-1839), the Philadelphia Mint produced a total of 51,706,473 pieces. Among numerous overdates and varieties, one in particular stands out: 1817 with fifteen stars on the obverse. Why this coin has fifteen stars is still a subject of debate, but one theory has it that Scot erred while punching in the devices and spaced the first several stars too close to one another. Wishing to save the die, he added enough stars to balance the design, exceeding by two the normally required thirteen stars.

While none of the dates in the series are outstanding rarities, the “key” date is 1823. It is scarce in all grades. Although counterfeits in the series are rarely seen, several generations of restrikes for the 1823 cents exist, each with successively larger and larger die breaks on the obverse. The years of 1835 through 1839, redesigned by either William Kneass before his stroke or Christian Gobrecht afterward, are considered transitional. While the design differs in several significant aspects, these years are generally collected within the Coronet series. In 1839, four different varieties were struck, among which are two of the most widely collected in 19th century numismatics: the so-called Silly Head and the Booby Head.

Proofs are very rare and were generally made only for diplomatic presentation sets. Several dates are reported to have a proof finish on the obverse and mint frost on the reverse. Allegedly, these “one-sided proofs” were struck for collectors who wished to display their coins with the obverse side up and did not care how the reverse was finished.

Grading Coronet cents is relatively uncomplicated due to the coin’s simple design. Wear first shows on the highpoints of the hair curls and on the highpoints of the leaves. A caveat, however: Many copper collectors use grading standards agreed upon by the Early American Coppers Society, and application of these standards can be quite confusing to non-specialists.

Collected as type coins, by date and by die variety, Coronet cents are a fascinating series. For the variety specialist, the standard reference was for many years Howard Newcomb’s United States Large Cents 1816-1857. While Newcomb’s numbering system is still used, collectors will find it easier to attribute these varieties with more recent and well illustrated books by William C. Noyes and John D. Wright (see Bibliography).

Due to a numismatically fortuitous event over 125 years ago, the condition conscious type collector will find this series particularly interesting. Shortly after the Civil War, a large keg was found beneath an old railway platform in Georgia. Upon opening, it was discovered to contain approximately 14,000 large cents dated from 1816 through 1820. All the coins were uncirculated, but many showed carbon flecks from moisture in the atmosphere. The keg was sold to a dry-goods merchant in Norwich, New York who attempted to pass the old coins out to customers as a publicity stunt, but many people refused what was by that time an unfamiliar coin. The remainder of the keg was sold to John Randall, a Norwich coin collector, for 90 cents on the dollar. Randall sold the coins off slowly over the years, in spite of the rumors that they were restrikes. In 1878, as part of Randall’s estate, the remaining 2,116 Coronet cents from the hoard were sold at public auction. The 1819s brought $1.28 each, but most of the other dates realized only 5-7 cents apiece. Almost all mint state cents from 1816-1820, many of which still possess original mint red color, are from Randall’s hoard. Dates from the 1820s, however, are quite rare in mint state.

When new in 1816 the Coronet design represented the latest in mint technology and design, but by 1839 both design and manufacturing methods were overtaken by the advent of the steam powered coin press. New designs were the order of the day, and the old Coronet cent passed into the quaintness of a bygone era, replaced by Christian Gobrecht’s Braided Hair design.

Braided Hair, 1839-1857

By 1839, few people inside or outside the U.S. Mint were satisfied with the large cent design, least of all its creator, Chief Engraver Christian Gobrecht. But this was nothing new; from its very beginnings, the large cent had suffered abuse and ridicule. First of all, there were the designs. Though loved by present-day collectors, initial reaction wasn’t quite so kind. Contemporary and modern names describing Miss Liberty vividly illustrate the public’s disdain. From the “Liberty in a fright” of the Chain cents through the Classic Head’s “fat mistress” to the “obese ward boss” of the Matron Head, criticism never ceased. Now Gobrecht was faced with the same for his “Silly” and “Booby” head cents of 1839. It was clearly time for a change.

Art historians and numismatists believe that Gobrecht’s inspiration for the new 1839 design was the classic figure of Love in Benjamin West’s painting, Omnia Vincit Amor (Love Conquers All), created early in the 19th century. The braided hair over Liberty’s brow, her coronet and the long, loose locks flowing down her neck reflect the famed Empire style, then a decade out of date in Europe but firmly fixed in American hair and clothing fashions of the day.

Issues of 1839 through early 1843, now generally called the Petite Head, show Liberty leaning forward and feature a younger-looking version than Gobrecht’s later rendition, on which the head is upright and poised more gracefully in the field. Liberty is surrounded by the obligatory thirteen stars, with the date below. the reverse continued to use a closed-circle laurel wreath, made up of a single stem with leaves in groups of four, interspersed with large round berries. The wreath encircled ONE CENT (without the raised line below that appeared on earlier designs) and in turn was surrounded by the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Gobrecht’s 1843 revision featured bold serif-style letters substantially larger than on earlier reverses.

Braided Hair coins achieved greater uniformity than any of the earlier large cents. Introduction of steam power, advances in hubbing the design into the dies and the use of logotypes or single, four-digit punches to impress dates eliminated the many varieties so beloved by copper collectors. Minor varieties do exist, however, and these were first listed by Frank C. Andrews in 1883.

The definitive work on these late dates was completed by Howard R. Newcomb in 1938 and published by Stack’s of New York in 1944 as United States Copper Cents 1816-1857. Newcomb devoted years to identifying and describing thousands of minor varieties. “N” numbers remain standard today, though their attribution is much easier now with John R. Grellman, Jr's book The Die Varieties of United States Large Cents 1840-1857.

Naked-eye or “Red Book” varieties of general interest include large and small dates of 1840 and 1842, and multiple obverse/reverse combinations for 1843. Others are 1844 and 1851 coins showing an 18 punched upside down where the last two digits of the date were supposed to go, creating the 1844/81 and 1851/81 varieties. Large cents of 1846 appear with small, medium and large dates, while 1847 coins include the bold Large over Small 7 variety. The 1855 issues show slanting (italic) or upright 5s. These two types of 5s also occur on cents of 1856. Chief Engraver James B. Longacre favored the slanting 5, while the upright 5 is attributed to an unknown assistant. The bold 1855 “Knob on Ear” variety resulted from a large die chip that gradually expanded to cover part of Liberty’s head.

The remarkable increase in production with the arrival of steam power in 1836 is well illustrated by mintages of this design. Except for 1857, between 1.5 and 9 million pieces were made each year, all at the Philadelphia Mint. Proofs are known of all dates except 1839, 1851 and 1853, and all are rare to extremely rare.

Although initially welcomed by a public in need of small change for commerce, the cumbersome coins soon were widely disliked, even before the Braided Hair design debuted. They were heavy, often found badly worn or corroded and didn’t have legal-tender status. Merchants could and did refuse to accept them, often preferring their own store tokens or the “Hard Times” tokens commonly used in trade.

Rejected in commerce, the unwanted cents didn’t go to waste. Craftsmen needing copper for their work often found it advantageous to purchase cents in bulk, sometimes by the keg (approximately 14,000 pieces!), and melt them down. With the rising price of copper in the early 1850s, they paid less for the coins than the Mint paid for the raw copper. Other innovative uses abounded. Physicians recommended wearing them for arthritis (not unlike the copper bracelets of today), housewives used them in pickling brine and, after drilling, forming or shaving, they served as everything from gears to screwdrivers to valve-cocks to advertising tokens. They even entered the slave trade. Ironically, while some large cents were shipped overseas to pay tribal chieftains for slaves, uniquely notched pieces would later serve as identification for runaway slaves on their way north.

As early as 1850, the Mint gave serious thought to replacing the large cents with a smaller coin. In 1857, officials selected an alloy of 12% nickel and 88% copper for the new 19-millimeter Flying Eagle cents. Few mourned the end of the large cents at the time, but the sudden change galvanized America’s first numismatists and focused their attention on the familiar copper coins. After 1857, Philadelphia became the birthplace of coin collecting in America. English-born Edward Cogan added large cents to his line of books and art work, and others soon followed his lead. Within a decade, dealer Ebenezer Mason would begin publishing his Monthly Coin and Stamp Collectors Magazine, and the American Journal of Numismatics would debut, both further publicizing the virgin field of numismatics.

Grading of this design is fairly straightforward, with measurable wear first appearing on the hair above the ear and on the bow on the wreath. As always, mint-red coins enjoy consistent demand, particularly from type collectors. Most of the dates in the 50s, except for 1854 and 1857, are occasionally available in mint red: hoards of each were uncovered over the years—many in bank vaults during 1933’s Bank Holiday.

A decade after its demise, the Braided Hair large cent made one last shadowy reappearance. Mint Director Henry Linderman ordered “fantasy pieces” made—dated 1868—using the old dies in storage. Struck both in copper and nickel, fewer than a dozen pieces are known today. Between collectors and the creativity of the Philadelphia Mint, the large cent was more popular after its death than during its many years of circulation!

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NGC Auction Central Disclaimer

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