The only date since 1793 for which no cents can be found: The remarkable year of 1815

Though there was little activity at Philadelphia Mint, the legacy of the year 1815 lives on for collectors
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 01/21/15
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Editor's note: The following is a portion of Bill Eckberg's  Coin World  cover feature on U.S. coins in the War of 1812 era. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the bottom of this post.

The year 1815 was a significant one for the United States of America, but one that saw little activity at the U.S. Mint. Yet what the Mint did in 1815 has an outsize interest for coin collectors and students of numismatics. 

The cents of 1815?

Unlike most silver and gold coinage, cent production continued throughout the War of 1812. The cents produced during the war were of the Classic Head type, designed, as the other types we have discussed, by John Reich. 

The Mint did not strike copper coins for bullion depositors. Rather, it purchased ready-made planchets from suppliers. In the early 1800s Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, England, was the supplier. Boulton shipped nearly 60 tons of cent planchets to the Mint between 1807 and 1811. The last shipment arrived on April 15, 1812, shortly before hostilities broke out. No more planchets would be available until after the war. The last 357,830 coins struck on these planchets were delivered on Oct. 27, 1814. 

Cents were struck in 1815, but no cents dated 1815 exist. In fact, 1815 is the only date since 1793 for which no cents can be found. What cents were struck in 1815? 

Once the war was over in early 1815, the Mint ordered 5 tons of planchets from Boulton. These arrived in the fall and were struck into coins as soon as possible. The resulting 465,500 cents were delivered on Feb. 27, 1816. But what coins were these? Most writers have assumed that they were the first examples of the Coronet or Matron Head type of 1816 to 1839, dated 1816. But it’s hard to believe that the Mint could have developed a completely new design and coined 465,500 cents from the newly designed dies in the first six weeks of the year. As we have seen, the quarter dollars and half dollars delivered in early 1816 were all dated 1815, so it is logical that cents struck and delivered about the same time would not have been dated 1816 either. 

Use of a die in a year after the one stamped on it was common practice at the Philadelphia Mint during this era. All of the dollars delivered in 1804 were dated 1803, and most 1795-dated half cents were struck and delivered in 1796. Many other examples could be given. 

Perhaps, therefore, the coins were struck from a leftover die dated 1814. The surviving population of coins tells us that if the entire mintage for the date was the recorded 357,830, 1814 Classic Head cents are far more common, relative to the original mintage, than other Classic Head dates. Not only that, but 1816 Matron Head cents are less common than 1817 and 1818 Matron Heads, relative to their supposed mintage, if all cents delivered in 1816 were dated 1816. If, on the other hand, the Feb. 27, 1816, delivery was composed of 1814-dated cents, both dates would be about equally common relative to mintage as others of their types are. This was reported in 2001 by Dr. Ronald P. Manley in Penny-Wise. 

The Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corp. population reports are a useful resource for numismatists, and they support this finding. If the total mintage of 1814-dated cents was 357,830, that is only 8.7 percent of the total Classic Head mintage. However, 29 percent of the Classic Head cents PCGS and NGC have graded were dated 1814. This is more than a three-fold difference. 

Three possible explanations for this come to mind. 

First, more 1814 cents might exist in higher grades, resulting in more submissions to the grading services relative to the surviving population size. This does contribute, but only in a small way. 

Second, there was a rumor in the early 1830s, thoroughly debunked immediately, that 1814 cents contained trace amounts of gold, which could have led to hoarding. However, the coins had already been circulating for almost 20 years by then, and it seems that if anyone had actually tried to hoard them to get the nonexistent gold, he would have melted them down, and fewer would survive. 

The third possibility is that substantially more than 357,830 cents were struck with the 1814 date. 

If we suppose that the cents struck in late 1815 and delivered in February 1816 were dated 1814, the total mintage for the year becomes 823,330, or about 18 percent of the total Classic Head mintage. That is still lower than the 29 percent graded by PCGS and NGC, but combined with the larger fraction surviving in high grade, the agreement is good. 

The cents, like the other coins the Mint produced in 1815, are expensive. According to Coin World Coin Values, an example in VG-8 can be purchased for $150, one in VF-20 for $750 and an AU-50 for $3,100. PCGS has graded 586 examples, and NGC has graded 319. Collectors of early large cents are among the most dedicated and active in American numismatics, so the demand is greater than for the silver and gold coins. 

The 1814 Classic Head cents are available in two die marriages or varieties: one with a plain 4 and the other with a crosslet 4. Can we tell which of the two varieties was probably struck in 1815? Yes, we can. 

The number minted in 1815 was about one-third more than that in 1814, so the more common of the two varieties must have been the one struck in 1815. That would be the plain 4 variety. 

If the 1814 large cents are too expensive for you, how about trying to buy one dated 1815? To fill that hard-to-fill-hole in the collection, people have altered other coins to create the 1815-dated cent the Mint never made. Various host coins have been used for this purpose, usually 1813, but also 1845. Some of the alterations are so well done that it is hard to tell they aren’t real. Most, however, are not very deceptive, and can be purchased for $100 or less as damaged or altered coins. 

If the first delivery in 1816 was of 1814-dated cents, when did the first ones dated 1816 appear? No more cents were delivered until Dec. 20, 1816, so it seems likely that the design change took place during that lengthy interval. It is generally thought that the new design was the product of Robert Scot, chief engraver of the Mint since 1794, but Reich was still working at the Mint in late 1816, so we can’t be sure which of them created the new design. 

The War of 1812 and its aftermath had a profound effect not only on the government and economy, but also on the coinage produced, making 1815 a fun, interesting, unusual, and highly challenging year for coin collectors. The coins produced in 1815 can be costly, but they are important relics of a most important time in the history of our country.

Keep reading this series:

The remarkable year of 1815: War of 1812's end and the U.S. Mint

Gold 1815 Capped Head half eagle a rare and expensive item

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