Chain Cents 1793 Coin Guide
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Chain Cent 1793, Photo courtesy,
In 1793, democracy was still a struggling and unproven form of
government. In France, the revolution that erupted with such force four
years earlier, began the year with the beheading of Louis XVI, and that
country's struggle with democracy degenerated into near anarchy with the
Reign of Terror. Meanwhile, the fledgling United States of America was
trying to establish its place among the sovereign nations of the world.
One of the issues receiving President Washington's attention was the
necessity for a solid and respectable system of coinage. To that end, he
and his wife Martha donated $75 worth of silver tableware, and the famous
half dismes of 1792 were struck, making "a small beginning"
toward coinage, as he stated in his Annual Address in November 1792.
A case can be made that the 1792 half dismes, the silver-center cents,
or the Birch cents were the first coins struck by the United States.
However, the first regular coins struck by the federal government on its
own machinery and within its own premises were the 36,103 Chain cents
struck in the first twelve days of March of 1793. Henry Voight was
responsible for designing and engraving the dies for these historic coins,
and his qualifications for such a job were minimal to say the least.
Voight was a skilled operational mechanic and was well known as a watch
maker. Six months after helping demolish a whiskey still on the site of
what was to be the first Mint building, Voight was ordered by mint
Director Rittenhouse to place into effect his "plan" which
included designing, engraving, and striking pattern cents. One was
designed by him at the urging of Thomas Jefferson-the famous silver-center
cent. It was this design that served as the model for the Chain cent of
Despite his lack of experience as a die cutter, Voight did at least
realize the limitations of the medium in which he had to work. With the
small hand presses then in use, if the central device of Liberty was to
have any appreciable relief, then the reverse design had to have a simple
layout with much open space in the fields. The head of Liberty and the
chain device on the reverse were well suited to these needs.
The chain design was simple enough and is easily the most successful
element on the coin. Its fifteen interlocking links form an unbroken
chain, with the words ONE CENT and the fraction 1/100 inside. The chain
device was an obvious allusion to the interconnectedness of the fifteen
states in the Union. This same device had previously been used on
Continental Currency to signify the common, shared cause of the 13
rebellious colonies. It had more recently been seen on the widely
circulated Fugio cents of 1787, which makes the public reaction of 1793
all the more difficult to understand.
Many people associated the chain device with the chains of slavery.
Numerous specimens were struck from clashed dies, a minting problem that
occurs when the obverse and reverse dies clash with each other without a
blank planchet between them, leaving an impression of the obverse on the
reverse and vice versa. Coins struck thereafter will show an impression of
both obverse and reverse on each side. One contemporary critic who
referred to "Liberty in chains" was likely referring to die
clashed coins which would show traces of the chain in front of Liberty's
neck and face.
The obverse design was open to criticism, not over the symbolism
represented by the figure of Liberty, but for purely aesthetic reasons.
Respectable women in the late 18th century had neatly coiffed hair, quite
unlike the disheveled look seen on the figure of Liberty on the Chain
cent. Various contemporary observers accused Ms. Liberty of having a look
of madness or savagery. It was undoubtedly the universally disapproving
comments that the Mint received and Voight took personally, that resulted
in his assigning the task of cutting the dies for the next cent design
(the Wreath cent) to a Mint employee who had true artistic talent, Adam
The die steel used to produce the Chain cents was of poor quality, and
four obverse dies were used with three reverse dies. The most famous
variety in the series has the word AMERICA abbreviated as AMERI. on the
reverse. This is a highly prized coin as it is considered the first
variety struck of the first regular issue produced in the United States
Mint. Probably no more than 1,500 to 2,000 Chain cents may actually
survive today. Many of these are impaired, low grade coins, and there may
only be ten or so known today in mint condition, with a dozen in AU, and
perhaps as many as 35 in XF condition.
While 1793 was decades before regular proofs were struck, there is one
Chain cent that most experts agree is definitely a prooflike presentation
piece. To early copper aficionados, this piece is known simply as
"The Coin!" It was struck on a very broad planchet, and it
appears that more than one blow from the dies was used to bring up the
extra detail on this magnificent coin. It has been owned by the most
illustrious group of copper collectors of each generation since its
manufacture. The pedigree for this most famous Chain cent began with the
father of coin collecting in this country, Joseph Mickley. It has also
been in the collections of Sylvester Crosby, Dr. Hall, Virgil Brand (the
beer magnate), Henry Clay Hines, Dr. Sheldon (who wrote the standard
reference on early coppers), and R.E. Naftzger.
Chain cents are collected primarily by type alone, due to their rarity.
Early cent specialists, however, will seek to own one of each of the five
varieties known. These are attributed to the book Penny Whimsy by Dr.
William H. Sheldon and include Sheldon varieties one through four, as well
as NC-1 (NC stands for "non-collectable," meaning a great
Grading Chain cents can be especially tricky for the novice, as the
device of Liberty was punched into the die more shallowly than the chain
on the reverse. As a result, on coins that have the obverse virtually worn
smooth, the reverse will still show complete chain detail. On coins in
grades between Very Good and Extremely Fine, remaining hair detail on
Liberty is the most important factor in establishing the coin's grade, in
addition to the overall preservation of the surfaces. Counterfeits are
mostly high grade electrotypes. They can be very difficult to detect, and
authentication of any Chain cent is highly recommended.
Today, Chain cents are among the rarest and most beloved of all United
States coins. It is virtually impossible for 20th century collectors to
look at one today with the same lack of appreciation expressed by 18th
century viewers. The Chain cent is indeed a coin whose numismatic
importance and rarity far outweighs any concerns that may have been
expressed in previous centuries about its design and aesthetic appeal.
Diameter: Variable, from 25 to 28 millimeters. Weight: 13.48 grams
Composition: Copper Edge: Vines and Bars
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bowers, Q. David, United States Coins by
Design Types, An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor, Bowers and
Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1986. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's
Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins, F.C.I. Press,
Albertson, NY, 1977. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia
of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Noyes,
William C., Noyes' Encyclopedia of Large Cents, Volume 1, Litho Technical
Services, Bloomington, MN, 1995. Noyes, William C., United States Large
Cents, 1793-1814, Published by the author, Monument Beach, CA, 1991.
Sheldon, Dr. William H., Penny Whimsy, A Revision of Early American Cents,
Quarterman Publications, Lawrence, MA, 1976. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and
Coinage, Arco Publishing, New York, 1966.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.