Large Cents

First produced in 1793, the large cent enjoys an important role in U.S. coinage, and in the history of U.S. coin collecting. The reaction most people have upon seeing a large cent for the first time is usually disbelief – that the U.S. ever made a one cent coin so bulky! The large cent contained one cent worth of virtually pure copper. They were larger than a quarter, about the size of a half-dollar. 

Large cents were coined every year from 1793 to 1857, but none were made dated 1815. In the early days of the U.S. mint, blanks or planchets were imported, usually from Great Britain. During the War of 1812, an embargo against shipments between the U.S. and Britain made it impossible for the mint to source more blanks. No shipments for cent blanks were received between April of 1812 and October of 1814. Cents were struck in 1815, but these coins were almost certainly dated 1814. Perhaps this decision was made in the interest of using up older dies – we may never know for certain. Even now, 1815 is the only date since 1793 not represented by a U.S. one cent coin!

The large cent went through seven major designs over the years. The first design, called the “chain cent,” featured a chain of fifteen links on the reverse, symbolizing the states of the U.S. at the time. The chain cent was the first regular-issue coin manufactured at the U.S. mint. The design proved very unpopular, and was quickly replaced by the “wreath cent,” also produced in 1793 only. A third design came into use late in 1793, the “Liberty cap” design. This design continued until 1796. The draped bust design was made from 1796-1807, and the “classic head” design was made from 1808 to 1814. After no large cents were made dated 1815, 1816 saw the introduction of the “matron head” or “coronet” cent, made until 1839. The final major type of large cent, the “braided hair” cent, was introduced in 1839 and was produced through 1857. Within these major design types, there are numerous more subtle varieties of large cent. Varieties through 1814 are cataloged by “S” or “Sheldon” numbers, named after Dr. William H. Sheldon, Jr., whose catalog of varieties is the standard reference. Later dates can be collected by “N” or “Newcomb” number, from the catalog by Howard R. Newcomb, examining the coins from 1816-1857.

Rising prices of copper ore caused the mint to look for alternatives to the large cent. Starting in 1849, a variety of alternative proposals were considered and occasionally tested. Finally, after many trial proposals, the Coinage Act of 1857 specified a new smaller one cent coin, now known as the “flying eagle” cent. This new coin was made of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The Act also abolished the half cent, and removed the legal tender status of foreign coins circulating within the United States – up to that point a large percentage of the circulating silver & gold coinage in the U.S. The dramatic changes wrought by the Coinage Act of 1857 spurred the growth of the coin collecting hobby in the U.S. The changeover to small cents led people to examine their old pocket change in earnest, and to take a strong interest in the old disappearing copper cents. To this day, large cents enjoy a serious, dedicated collector following. 

As a class, large cents aren’t rare, and collecting them by date is an attainable goal for a persistent collector. The 1793-dated coin is very scarce and highly sought-after (especially the chain type), while the 1799 and 1804 dated coins are difficult to find. For all dates, finding examples in nice condition with good surfaces can be a real challenge. 

Large cents through 1807 bear their denomination twice, once written out as “one cent,” and also rendered as a fraction, “1/100.” All large cents were made at the U.S. mint in Philadelphia.