The first cents that were struck in the United States were the 1793 Flowing Hair Large Cents. Found with two different reverses, the Chain Cents are the most famous and much in demand, while the Wreath Cents are more easily found, but remain rare. Neither of these designs lasted longer than a few months, after much criticism found in nationwide newspapers, the designs were soon altered. Today, the story of the Chain Cent is well documented, and the examples that survive are in demand but seldom available in high grade. The Wreath Cent of 1793 had a mintage of more than double but remains rare and experiences steady demand from type and large cent collectors.
The Mint Act of April 2, 1792 represented the birth of United States coinage. On that day, the familiar denominations such as the dime, quarter, half dollar, and dollar were authorized, along with a denomination which played a vital role in the early American economy. This was the cent, or 1/100 part of a dollar, the lowest denomination which continues to be in circulation up to the present day. In 1792, patterns for various denominations including cents were created, but the first cents struck in the following year would have a very different appearance.
In 1793, the cent would be the first denomination struck by the United States Mint, in a small building in Philadelphia that served as the nation’s first officially established Mint. Earlier coinage of the United States or the former colonies had been struck in many different establishments, but this was the first time federal coins were struck, on February 27, 1793. The coin, now named the 1793 Chain Cent was supposedly designed by Henry Voigt, the first chief-coiner at the Mint. Much criticized, his work would not last long, and at least one major engraving mistake is known.
The obverse of the first cents featured the head of Liberty, facing right, with her hair flowing backwards. The inscription LIBERTY is placed above, and the date is below, with both lettering and numbers visible in a somewhat curved manner. Liberty has a somewhat odd look, which has been described as frightened. The reverse has a chain of 15 links in a continuous circle, with the denomination spelled as ONE CENT in the center. The denomination is also given as 1/100, directly under the word CENT, meant for the large group of people at the time that could not read letters. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is evenly spaced is around.
The basic and simple design was much criticized by contemporary newspapers, some of which considered to design to be “a bad omen for Liberty”. After the newspaper reports, Henry Voigt quickly started working on an improved design which would become known as the Wreath Cent. A distinctively different type, the obverse saw the addition of a group of leaves between the truncation of the neck of Liberty and the date. Also, the hair of Liberty was much better executed, giving the image an overall more natural look. The reverse was completely altered. The chain was replaced with a wreath, and the denomination in numbers was moved to the bottom of the coin, outside of the wreath. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA was placed differently, with the words beginning at the left base of the wreath and extending around the wreath to the other side.
Struck only in 1793, both designs for the Flowing Hair Cent are rare and seldom encountered in problem-free condition. Especially the chain cents, of any variety are in demand, thanks to their historic significance and rarity. The wreath reverse cents are somewhat underrated, but still sell for reasonable amounts, thanks to the demand from type set collectors, but these lack the special stories that can be told when holding a chain cent, the first federal cent struck by the United States of America.