Early American Copper Coins: The Birth of a Nation's Currency

Early American copper coins were crucial in establishing the country’s currency and they remain a favorite among collectors. In fact, one-cent coins are among the most collected American coins, beside Morgan dollar and half dollar coins.

These early American copper coins are mostly half-cents, large cents, and small cents. Some of the most sought-after examples are:

  • Chain Cents

  • Wreath Cents

  • Liberty Cap Cents

  • Classic Head Half Cents

  • Draped Bust Half Cent

With dozens of varieties and thousands of copper coins minted, it might seem daunting to learn about.

Don’t fret — we here at Coins Auctioned have harnessed our years of experience and expertise to put together this comprehensive guide. In it, we’ll be covering the history, designs, and values of early American copper coins from the 1700s to 1900s.

early american copper coinsPictured above: Obverse of 1851 "Braided Hair" half cent | Public domain

Historical Background

The first official US coins ever made for circulation were copper cents. These early coins were copper “Fugio cents” (or “Franklin cents”) made in 1787, authorized by the Confederation Congress, a precursor to the current US Congress.

But unofficial early copper coinage had actually been around for a while.

Colonial Coins

American currency was a complicated ordeal during the Colonial Period (early 1600s to 1783).

The earliest Colonial coins were silver shillings, struck in Massachusetts from 1652 to 1682 (but always dated 1652).

Most colonists used paper money, trade commodities, privately minted coins, or various foreign currencies, particularly the Spanish dollar which led to official American currency being in decimalized dollar denominations later.

Some notable Colonial copper coins included:

  • William Wood’s Hibernia Copper Coins (1723-1724): Halfpence and farthing coins minted in Ireland & widely circulated in New York

  • Higley Coppers or “Trader’s Currency Tokens” (1737-1739): Minted by Samuel Higley in Connecticut

  • Vermont Coppers (1785-1791): Coins from first local government with authorized private mint

  • Connecticut Coppers (1758-1788): Minted by small business "The Company for Coining Coppers”

colonial american copper nova constellatio pattern coinPictured above: Obverse and reverse of 1,000 Unit (1 dollar) Nova Constellatio pattern coin from 1783| Image credit: Professional Coin Grading Service, Public domain

Post-Colonial Coins

What led to the first official American coinage? A lot of history, but in a nutshell:

Once the US won the Revolutionary War in 1783, becoming independent from Great Britain, each of the thirteen states was allowed to establish their own coinage system.

Copper was the most abundant local metal, so many states celebrated independence with copper currency coins:

  • New Hampshire (1776)

  • Massachusetts (1787-1788)

  • New York - Brasher Doubloon (1787)

Another series notable as the first official American pattern coins was the Nova Constellatio series struck in 1783. This series includes silver ten-dollar, dollar, and ten-cent coins along with a one-cent copper coin.

The Nova Constellatio coins were part of a proposed plan for decimalized currency. Congress rejected the plan but later implemented a version of it within their dollar currency.

However, all of these coins added with circulating foreign coins created a chaotic and inconsistent system.

Coinage Act of 1792

The official US Congress, established in 1789, passed the Coinage Act of 1792 to establish a national mint (in then-capital Philadelphia), decimalized currency system, and the following American coins to be made in silver, gold, and copper:

  • Silver: Half dime (5-cent), dime (10-cent), quarter (25-cent), half dollar (50-cent), dollar ($1)

  • Gold: Quarter eagle ($2.50), half eagle ($5), eagle ($10)

  • Copper: Half cent (0.5-cent), cent (1-cent)

The US Mint’s first official circulation coins were “large cents” released in 1793 with 13.4782 grams (8.67 pennyweight) of pure copper.

This batch of 11,178 copper cents are dubbed “Flowing Hair” Large Cents, specifically the “chain cent” variety.

While the US Mint worked to produce enough coins for the country to use solely American currency, Congress passed legislation in 1806 to regulate the legal-tender value of certain foreign coins.

1793 american copper chain cent coinPictured above: Reverse of 1793 Flowing Hair "chain cent"  | Image credit: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History; Public domain

War of 1812 Copper Embargo

During the War of 1812 with the UK, both sides set trade embargos. For the US Mint, that meant losing the British copper planchets they relied on. They used what they had before running out in 1815.

The war ended in July and the Mint quickly reordered copper planchets, but no copper coins were struck with an 1815 mintage year.

Changes in 1857

The US Mint’s production of American coins caught up to foreign coin demand around the 1850s, thanks to developments like steam-powered coining machines and other mint branches opening.

This led Congress to pass the Coinage Act of 1857, which:

  1. Made foreign coins no longer legal tender

  2. Discontinued large cents & half cents

  3. Established “small cent” pennies (current type) with specifications of 4.655 grams and a cupro-nickel composition of 88 percent copper & 12 percent nickel, or NS-12 — from 1793 to 1857, all pennies were roughly 100 percent copper

This act was also in response to the half cent being unpopular, copper prices rising, and the mint struggling to produce enough copper coins.

With the establishment of official American coinage, the US Mint got to work designing coins that reflected American ideals.

1793 liberty cap copper half centPictured above: Obverse of 1793 "Liberty Cap" (left facing) half cent | Public domain

Design & Iconography

Much of the early American coinage featured symbolic imagery, rather than real people or places.

The most prominent symbol was Lady Liberty, chosen over presidents to avoid emulating Great Britain’s monarch-central coins.

The Liberty personification is from ancient Greco-Roman mythology but became a symbol of freedom during the Revolutionary War.

Other symbols prominent on early copper coins include:

  • Liberty Cap: Freedom; AKA Phrygian cap or pileus hat, given to freed slaves in ancient Rome; Often mounted on pole, part of the emancipation ceremony

  • Union Shield: Congress & original 13 colonies’ unity; From obverse of Great Seal of the United States (national symbol)

  • Stars: Colonies or states; New sovereignty of the nation when paired with clouds

  • Wreath: Triumph, glory, wholeness

  • Olive Branch: Peace

  • Arrows: Military strength, war

  • Torch: Freedom, enlightenment

  • Bald Eagle: National bird, chosen to represent American liberty & strength

  • Fasces: (Bundle of wooden rods around an ax) Strength through unity

  • E Pluribus Unum: Traditional national motto, used on Great Seal; Latin for “Out of many, one”

One controversial motif was a chain featured on the Flowing Hair large cent in 1793. The chain was meant to symbolize unity, but many interpreted it as a symbol of imprisonment or slavery, leading Congress to quickly change the design.

With that symbolism in mind, let’s see how it appeared on early American copper coins.

Types of Early American Copper Coins

Most old copper coins are separated into three categories: half cents, large cents, and small cents.

Half Cents

1853 copper braided hair half cent coinPictured above: Obverse of 1853 "Braided Hair" half cent | Image credit: Coin: Lost Dutchman Rare Coins, Public domain

Half cents were minted from 1793 to 1857. They had a face value of $0.005 (0.5 cent), the smallest US coin denomination, and a composition of 100 percent copper.

The coins were 2 mm thick with varied diameters: 22 mm in 1793, 23.5 mm from 1794 to 1836, and 23 mm from 1840 to 1857.

These early American copper coins had five designs:

  • Liberty Cap (1793): Engraver Henry Voigt; Obverse - Liberty with flowing hair facing left, Liberty cap atop pole behind her, inscriptions “LIBERTY” & mintage year; Reverse - Laurel wreath with berries & bow, inscriptions “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” “HALF CENT” & “1/200”

  • Liberty Cap (1794-1797): Designer/engraver Robert Scot; Obverse - Same as 1793 but facing right with no pole and neater flowing hair; Reverse - Same as 1793 but larger “HALF CENT” lettering; Subtypes in 1794 - Low-relief Head & High-Relief Head

  • Draped Bust (1800-1808): Designed/engraved by Gilbert Stuart, Robert Scot & Scot-John Gardner; Obverse - Liberty facing right with ribbon in flowing hair wearing drapery showing cleavage, inscriptions “LIBERTY” & mintage year; Reverse - Same as previous design

  • Classic Head (1809-1836 except 1812-1824, 1827, 1830): Designer John Reich; Obverse - Liberty facing left with long curly hair wearing fillet inscribed “LIBERTY” plus 13 stars (7 on left, 6 on right) & mintage year; Reverse - Similar to previous designs but continuous wreath with no bow or fraction & line under “HALF CENT” added

  • Braided Hair (1840-1857): Designer Christian Gobrecht; Obverse - Liberty facing left with some hair braided back into bun wearing coronet inscribed “LIBERTY” and encircled by 13 stars, mintage year inscribed; Reverse - Same as previous design but no line under “HALF CENT”

Most of the half cent coin edges were plain. Two exceptions are the 1793 half cents, which had a lettered edge reading “TWO HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR” and the 1797 copper half cents, which had the same lettering but also “gripped” (or “milled”) edges with wide, variable vertical and curved lines.

All half cents were struck at the Philadelphia Mint with no mint marks.

Large Cents

1813 classic head large cent copper coinPictured above: Obverse and reverse of 1813 "Classic Head" large cent | Image credit: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History; Public domain

Large cents were minted from 1793 to 1857, except 1815. They had a face value of $0.01 (1 cent) and a composition of 100 percent copper (possibly with impurities from smelting).

Large cents weighed 13.5 grams until 1796, when it switched to 10.9 grams before switching again in 1808 to 10.89 grams.

Most large cents were 28 mm in diameter.

The early American copper large cents had seven designs, many of which paralleled the half cent designs and three of which were in the first troublesome year:

  • Flowing Hair - Chain (February-March 1793): Designer Henry Voigt; Obverse - Low-relief Liberty facing right with disheveled flowing hair and frightened look, inscriptions “LIBERTY” & mintage year; Reverse - Inscription “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” around a 15-link chain ring encircling inscriptions “ONE CENT” & “1/100”

  • Flowing Hair - Wreath (June-September 1793): Designer Adam Eckfeldt; Obverse - Similar to previous design but with longer hair, more upward-tilted face, and three-leaf sprig added; Reverse - Ornamental wreath with bow encircling “ONE CENT” plus inscriptions “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” & “1/100” and beaded border

  • Liberty Cap (April 1793-1796): Designer Joseph Wright; Obverse - Liberty facing right with ribbon in flowing hair & Liberty cap on pole behind her, inscriptions “LIBERTY” & mintage year; Reverse - Same as previous design but without linear berry spikes in wreath; Border Varieties - Beaded (1793) or Denticled (1794 on); Hundreds of varieties with different head shapes and shapes/sizes of mintage year numerals

  • Draped Bust (1796-1807): Designers Robert Scot & John Smith Gardner; Obverse - Liberty facing right with ribbon in flowing hair wearing drapery showing cleavage, inscriptions “LIBERTY” & mintage year; Reverse - Olive wreath with berries & bow, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” “ONE CENT” & “1/100” inscriptions; Reverse Varieties - Leaves & berries on wreath differ among Type of 1794, Type of 1795, and Type of 1797

  • Classic Head (1808-1814, 2 in 1815): Designer John Reich; Obverse - Liberty facing left with long curly hair wearing fillet inscribed “LIBERTY” plus 13 stars (7 on left, 6 on right) & mintage year; Reverse - Similar to previous designs but continuous wreath with no bow or fraction & line under “ONE CENT” added

  • Coronet - Matron Head / Middle Dates (2 in 1815, 1816-1839): Designer Robert Scot; Obverse - Similar to previous design but larger Liberty wearing coronet instead of fillet & stars in fuller circle, modified to make younger-looking Liberty in 1835; Reverse - Same as previous design

  • Coronet - Braided Hair / Late Dates (1839-1857): Designer Christian Gobrecht; Obverse - Similar to previous design but Liberty has some hair braided back into bun and wider head shape; Reverse - Same as previous design but no line under “ONE CENT” & thicker border; Obverse Varieties - “Petite Head” in 1839 & “Mature Head” in 1843; Reverse Varieties - Small, large, tall, or standard dates

Most large cents had plain edges. Some wreath cents and Liberty Cap cents had lettered edges reading “ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR” sometimes with one or more leaves after. Chain cent (and some wreath cent) edges had alternating vine and vertical bars.

Small Cents

1859 indian head copper small centPictured above: Obverse and reverse of 1859 "Indian Head" small cent | Image credit: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History; Public domain

In 1857, Congress replaced large cents and half cents with “small cents,” the current type of penny. They still have a face value of $0.01 (1 cent) but different copper compositions.

From 1857 to 1864, the cent’s composition was 88 copper and 12 percent nickel. This changed to a bronze composition (95 percent copper, 2.5 percent tin & 2.5 percent zinc) through 1942.

After the zinc-coated steel 1943 steel cent, pennies went back to a 95 percent copper composition until 1982.

Weights fluctuated, but most small cents were 3.11 grams.

Early copper small cents (up to 1909) had two designs:

  • Flying Eagle (1857-1858): Designers James B. Longacre & Christian Gobrecht; Obverse - Eagle in flight facing left, inscriptions “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” & mintage year; Reverse - Agricultural wreath (corn, tobacco, cotton & wheat) encircling “ONE CENT” denomination

  • Indian Head Cent (1859-1909): Designer James B. Longacre; Obverse - Liberty facing left wearing Native American headdress, inscriptions “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” & mintage year; Reverse - Laurel wreath (1859) or oak wreath with shield (1860 on) encircling “ONE CENT” denomination

Since 1909, small cents have had Lincoln cent design variations, starting with the wheat penny series.

Mostly minted in Philadelphia, none of the early small cents have mint marks except for 1908 and 1909 Indian Head cents minted in San Francisco, which have “S” on the reverse.

Other Copper Coins

Cents and half cents are the most famous early American copper coins, but other coins had copper compositions.

The nickel ($0.05) has been struck in cupronickel — 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel — since 1866. The only exception are “War Nickels” from 1942-1945 struck in a 56-percent copper alloy.

Since the 1960s, circulated dime, quarter, half-dollar and dollar coins have changed from predominantly silver compositions to mostly copper compositions.

Since 1982, pennies have been copper-plated zinc.

1817 copper proof large cent matron head coronet designPictured above: Obverse and reverse of 1817 "Matron Head" Coronet large cent proof coin | Image credit: PCGS Coin Facts, Free use

Minting & Production

Nearly all of the early American copper coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. These have no mint mark, but they’re often referred to with a “P” like “1794-P Liberty Cap cent.”

The only exceptions are the 1908-S and 1909-S Indian Head cents minted in San Francisco.

Among all American coins, the composition of pennies has changed the most, from 100 percent copper until 1857, to 88 percent copper until 1864, to 95 percent copper until 1982 (minus 1943 steel pennies).

The first copper cents struck as proof varieties were Matron Head large cents, starting in 1817. Some designs were struck as proof-only for certain years, like the 1840-1849 & 1852 Braided Hair half cents.

Proof cents would be struck every year until 1909, when matte proof versions took over.

Key Dates & Notable Series

Every early American copper coin has a “key date” (sometimes multiple) that collectors seek. A “key date” coin is often the rarest coin in a series, typically in the issue (e.g. 1967-D) with the lowest mintage or mint error.

Overall, any early proof copper cents had extremely low mintages, making them more valuable.

1802 draped bust half cent overdate error coinPictured above: Close-up of 1802 "Reverse of 1800" overdate error on Draped Bust half cent | Image credit: PCGS Coin Facts, Free use

Half Cent Key Dates

The two Liberty Cap half cents, only produced for one year, are generally the most valuable and sought-after designs. The 1795 Liberty Cap c9 variety with reeded edges is extremely rare, with only nine known.

Key dates & varieties for other designs include:

  • Draped Bust: 1802 “Reverse of 1800” Overdate; 1804 “Spiked Chin” Error

  • Classic Head: 1831; 1809/6 Error; 1809 “Circle in 0” Error; 1828 12-Stars

  • Braided Hair: “Original” 1852 Proof; 1840-1849 Large Berries, First Restrikes, or Second Restrikes

1855 copper large cent knob on ear errorPictured above: Close-up of "Knob on Ear" error on 1855 Braided Hair large cent | Image credit: PCGS Coin Facts, Free use

Large Cent Key Dates

Similarly, both Flowing Hair large cent designs (chain cent or wreath cent) are scarce and valuable. A famously rare variety is the 1793 “Strawberry Leaf” wreath cent, with only four known.

Key dates and valuable varieties for other large cents

  • Liberty Cap: 1794 Starred Reverse; 1795 Reeded Edge

  • Draped Bust: 1799; 1799/1798 or 1800/1798 or 1800/1879 Overdates

  • Classic Head: 1810/09 or 1811/10 Overdates; 1812 Small or Large Dates; 1814 Plain or Crosslet 4s

  • Matron Head: 1821; 1823; Major 1839 varieties; Dozens of mint errors, notably 1817 15-Stars and 1824/2 Overdate

  • Braided Hair: 1868 c12; 1839 “Silly Head” or “Booby Head” Errors;1855 “Knob on Ear” Error

copper 1856 flying eagle cent key date coinPictured above: Obverse and reverse of 1856 "Flying Eagle" cent | Image credit: PCGS Coin Facts, Free use

Small Cent Key Dates

The early small cents tended to have fewer errors than earlier cents, thanks to advances in technology. That said, there are still notable errors to look out for!

Key dates for early copper small cents are:

  • Flying Eagle: 1856; 1858/7 Overdate

  • Indian Head: 1877; 1908-S; 1909-S

With those in mind, how valuable are these rare copper coins?

Collecting & Grading

All early American copper coins are worth more than their face value, but that exact worth varies based on:

  • Variety: Proof copper coins had very low mintages, making any of these more valuable than the typical circulated (business-strike) variety.

  • Low Mintage: Examples from batches with lower mintages (fewer were made) are rarer and more valuable.

  • Mint Error: Copper coins minted incorrectly and still circulated are highly sought-after. Certain mint errors (like overdates) are more common than others (like doubled-die).

  • Condition: Historical, circulated copper coins are rarely preserved well, so a rare specimen in better condition carries significantly higher value. Having your coin graded and certified by a professional is crucial for resale value.

  • Demand: Certain copper coins fluctuate in popularity over time, making their value fluctuate, too.

Knowing what different grades mean is especially important.

extremely fine brown graded 1799 draped bust large copper centPictured above: 1799 Draped Bust large cent graded XF45BN  (Extremely Fine 45 & Brown) by PCGS | Image credit: PCGS Coin Facts, Free use

Copper Coin Grades

It’s best to consult an expert coin grader to determine a coin’s true condition and value before selling it. If you’re buying, here are what the grades generally mean for early copper coins:

  1. Uncirculated: Struck for circulation but never circulated; Looks like it did the day it was minted

  2. Mint State (MS): Like Uncirculated but with sub-grades from 60 to 70 for many visible marks to flawless, respectively

  3. Proof (PR): Struck as a proof coin; Sub-grades from 60 to 70 just like Mint State

  4. About Uncirculated (AU): Very minor wear on high points of design from circulation, well-preserved surfaces, near-complete mint luster

  5. Extremely Fine (XF or EF): Probably never used; Close to Uncirculated but with minor flaws usually not visible to the naked eye

  6. Very Fine (VF): Minor to moderate wear on highest points of design (beginning to flatten), still attractive condition

  7. Fine (F): Circulated briefly but still in good condition; Some flaws visible to the naked eye but design isn’t damaged much

  8. Very Good (VG): Well worn, major design elements flat but defined

  9. Good (G): Circulated heavily but in decent condition; Many flaws visible to the naked eye but design isn’t worn away

  10. About Good (AG): Heavily worn, inscriptions not easily readable, partial rim blending, dates possibly worn away

Color is also important to copper coin condition, as it relates to the coin’s preservation. Red is best, followed by reddish-brown, then brown.

1794 liberty cap half cent - valuable early american copper coinPictured above: Obverse of 1794 "Liberty Cap" half cent | Public domain

Most Valuable Copper Coins

Most early copper coins are worth at least $20 in About Good to Good condition, but some are way more valuable.

Valuable Half Cents

The most valuable copper half cents are 1796 Liberty Cap coins, which go for $18,000 when Good and $100,000 when Uncirculated.

Other valuable copper half cents are:

  • 1793 Liberty Cap (Left Facing): $3,700 to $35,000

  • 1794 Liberty Cap: $600 to $14,500

  • 1802 Draped Bust: $750 to $25,000

  • 1804 Draped Bust: $75 to $2,200

  • 1811 Classic Head: $400 to $8,500

Valuable Large Cents

PCGS has certified the most valuable large cent as a 1793 Strawberry Leaf NC-3 variety, graded VG-10, that sold for $862,500 in 2009.

The 1793 “Strawberry Leaf” wreath cents are arguably the most valuable, with another selling for $414,000 in 2004.

Other valuable large cents are:

  • 1799 Draped Bust: $3,500 to $210,000

  • 1793 Liberty Cap: $6,000 to $170,000

  • 1793 Chain Cent: $8,000 to $125,000

  • 1804 Draped Bust: $1,200 to $47,000

  • 1811 Classic Head: $85 to $10,000

  • 1824 Liberty Head: $85 to $8,500

Whether you go for the rarest of rare or beginner-friendly collectibles, you’re sure to find the early American copper coin for you!

early american copper braided hair large cent from 1839Pictured above: Obverse and reverse of 1839 "Braided Hair" large cent | Image credit: National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History; Public domain

Keep a Piece of American & Numismatic History with Early American Copper Coins!

Copper coins were fundamental to America’s early currency, and they’ve since become a numismatic treasure trove. Although copper coins like pennies aren’t worth much in commerce, they remain one of the most collected coins among beginners and long-time collectors alike.

Buy early American copper coins today!

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