Aristotle suggested in his Metaphysics that the substance of
something was the same as its essence, which he defined as something
like the “what-it-is-ness.”
Early American coin collectors can probably identify with this
concept of what-it-is-ness. A Vermont Landscape copper, with its
prominent planchet voids and noncircular shapes, just has a different
essence than a Nova Constellatio copper or a Washington, Large Eagle cent.
The designs are dissimilar, but the essential differences among
these issues are even more basic.
The essence of an early American copper coin is its planchet. If
you can understand the typical planchet quality of an issue, the rest
American-made coppers of the 18th century tend to suffer from
somewhat substandard technology compared to their European
counterparts. The copper stock started as mined copper or copper
scrap, which was then melted and formed into ingots. The ingots were
then laboriously rolled into sheets.
In a factory setting — someplace like Obediah Westwood’s mint in
Birmingham, England — the ingots were produced with excellent
consistency, free of noncopper inclusions or gas bubbles. The
resulting sheets were rolled with exacting sameness, meaning every
Washington, Large Eagle cent was about the same weight, about the same
thickness, and consistently devoid of flaws.
On the other hand, in the tiny mint in Rupert, Vt., where
Landscape coppers were produced, ingots were produced with charcoal or
gas inclusions that manifested as striations or rough texture when the
sheets were rolled out into planchet stock. The striking pressure of
the coining equipment was not great enough to obliterate those flaws,
and thus Vermont coppers look like they look.
The Aristotelian what-it-is-ness of a Vermont Landscape is
imperfection. That is part of their charm.
Connecticut coppers and Fugio coppers were, for the most part,
struck in the same place from the same copper stock. Is it any wonder
they suffer from the same problem of flaws?
Understanding planchets is key to grading as well. This is true,
not just because it is important to differentiate issues that tend to
accompany problematic copper stock from those that more often are on
nice quality copper, but also because consistency of planchet
thickness has a huge impact on the amount of detail that manifests
from the dies.
All of these difference make collecting early American copper
coins fascinating. Learning about things like typical planchet quality
is as easy as looking as at many coins as possible. And isn’t looking
at coins the fun part of collecting anyway?
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.