These were the first cents made pursuant to the Act of January 14, 1793 at the new legal weight of 208 grains (13.48 grams), reduced from an impossibly high 264 grains (17.11 grams). They are the first mass production coins in any metal issued by the federal government on its own machinery, and within its own premises. For all practical purposes, these are the first regular issue United States coins. (The various pattern coins of 1792, produced in or out of the Mint facility were not issued for circulation, excepting the 1792 half disme, and this was not produced within the Mint building.)
Henry Voigt (Voigt was appointed cheif coiner on January 29, 1793, after serving as pro tern coiner since spring 1792.) completed the dies sometime in February after vain attempts to locate anyone with the necessary training to engrave the devices," Though officialdom considered him the ablest man for the post here or overseas, the mechanical skills appropriate to a coiner are very different from those of a diesinker. Accordingly, Voigt's designs had to be as simple as possible. We know that Voigt made the dies because of a line in Elias Boudinot' s Report to Congress, February 9, 1795:
It was also a considerable time before an engraver could be engaged, during which, the chief coiner was obliged to make the dies himself, and yet the dies are subject to frequent failure by breaking.
Use of a Liberty head design was inevitable because of the terms of the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, mandating "a device emblematic of liberty." Her unbound hair was meant to symbolize freedom; instead, what its disheveled look then suggested was failure of respectability, either savagery or, more often, madness. This explains such criticisms as Carlile Pollock's comment (Editor's note: Past literature has attributed the 1793 Chain cent dies to Jean Pierre Droz (sometimes spelled Drost), originating from an article by Patterson DuBois in the July 1883 American Journal of Numismatics. Droz never visited the United States and certainly seems an unlikely candidate.) in a letter to General Williams, January 25, 1796:
A plough and a sheaf of wheat would be better than an Idiot's head with flowing hair, which was meant to denote Liberty; but which the world will suppose was intended to designate the head of an Indian squaw. (Coin Collectors Journal, February 1877, p. 28.)
Sheldon quotes others, notably an anonymous gibe at the "wild squaw with the heebie jeebies," supposedly antedating by over a century Billy DeBeck's coinage of the phrase in Barney Google. (Early American Cents, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949, p. 13. Unfortunately, Dr. Sheldon had misplaced his source when I asked him about it in 1958; nor did he ever again locate the "wild squaw.")
The endless chain device deliberately echoes the reverses of Continental notes of February 1776, the 1776 Continental Currency tin alloy penny, and the 1787 Fugio coppers. This was an unfortunate choice as, to many (then as now), a chain connoted not strength, but slavery. The 1776 prototype, with 13 links for the 13 United Colonies, was Benjamin Franklin's contribution, copied in 1787 by Abel Buell for the Fugios or "Congress Coppers." The 1793 revision with 15 links, for the 15 states then in the Union, most likely came from a sketch by David Rittenhouse. Either version of the design posed tricky geometrical problems, most likely an attempt to discourage would-be counterfeiters.
Voigt imparted the chain to both working dies by repeated hand punching of a single link element. This link punch, like the letter and numeral punches, must have been by the Germantown type founder Jacob Bay, who made punches for all of the denominations until his death in one of the yellow fever epidemics. (No further details of jacob Bay are currently available.)
Use of the decimal fraction 1/100 served two purposes: it reaffirmed federal commitment to the decimal system and it attempted to reach the then large class of people who could recognize numerals, even common fractions, but could not read words.
The cents' plain raised "lip" border, without beading or dentilation, proved unsatisfactory. Evidently it didnot strike up well (especially if the blanks were even slightly narrow) and the coins wore down too fast. Many survivors show little or no trace of the raised border though the planchets were apparently given upset rims to accommodate it. This may explain why, less than a month later, the new Wreath design showed obverse and reverse border beading within more noticeably raised rims.
Little is known about the sources of tool steel used by the Mint for making the dies. However, available die steel was evidently not of high quality, to judge by die life: only 36,103 impressions from four obverse dies and two reverse dies (averaging about 9,000 per obverse, 18,000 per reverse, or less than 10% of what it was to be 10 years later). The toughest of the dies of this group (Chain Reverse B) must have lasted no more than 29,000 impressions. Part of the problem was inefficient hardening methods; not unti11795 did Adam Eckfeldt find a solution. (Craig B. Sholley, in a letter to the editor dated August 1, 1996, comments "the die steel the mint was using was no worse than that available to their European counterparts as much of it waS imported ... The real problem was the whole process-they Simply did not have a grasp of the proper methods for forging and hardening dies." Par additional information, see: Craig Sholley, "Inexperience, Not Die Steel, Caused Problems At Early US Mint," Penny-Wise, March 1996.)
Planchets came from scrap copper on hand since October 1792. (R.W. Julian, "The Cent Coinage of 1793," Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, Dec. 1974, p. 68.) This had come in three lots: