Bowers on Collecting: 1793 chain cents

This 1793 chain “AMERICA” (Sheldon-2 variety) large cents, graded PCGS MS-65BN. Photo credit: Bowers and Merena Auctions. Move the pointer to zoom.

The very first US cent variety is known today as Sheldon-1, abbreviated as S-1 by collectors, with the chain cent appearing as AMERI with AMERICA on the back. The engraver of this coin, fearful that the whole word might not fit properly, shortened it in this unusual way.

It is not known who engraved the stamp for the first cent. For many years it was repeated in numismatic publications that the chain cent was the work of the Swiss Jean Pierre Droz, but in later years the theory was discarded. In recent years, Henry Voight has been mentioned as a designer and possibly an engraver. In the numismatic world, one person’s opinion is often converted in print into another person’s theory to be reprinted as a fact. Hence, many of the statements that appear in reference books today, such as identifying precise engravers with certain coins, are simply opinions, whether or not factual, could be learned.

After the beginning AMERI. Strikingly, several other types of dog chain cents, the latter with the word AMERICA spelled full, were produced. Today the collectors group is AMERI. and AMERICA varieties together as a general design style.

The public reaction to the 1793 chain design was unfavorable. A newspaper report pointed out that Miss Liberty appeared to be “in fear” and that the image of a chain on the back was “but a bad omen for freedom” and was hardly a symbol of a country in the process of achieving its freedom would have. Soon officials at the mint ordered that a new design should be prepared. A travel guide to United States coins It is estimated that 36,103 copies of the chain-cent design were struck.

Chain cents are very popular these days. There are several hundred copies of the various dies. Typically the pieces seen are in lower grades, from fair (sometimes only visible with the central devices on the front and back, the date has long been worn out) to fine. The relief of the matrices was such that even higher quality specimens look much more worn than they actually are. Often times a piece has a relatively sharp back, especially the chain motif, but the front is pretty faint and indistinct in the middle. Very fine and extremely fine chain cents are encountered when large collections hit the market. A few isolated pieces of uncirculation exist and are objects of desire, mostly unrequited, by specialists in the series, even by those with the most generous checking account balances. Acquiring such a piece is related more to opportunity than financial opportunity.

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