US Coins

The 1794 Liberty Cap cents that have personality

Coin Lore column from the Nov. 21, 2016, weekly issue of Coin World:

Double chins, ugly teeth, apple cheeks, trephined heads and stars, lots of stars, mark the large cents of 1794. Using 39 obverse dies and 38 reverse dies, the United States Mint at Philadelphia produced some 918,521 cents that year.

Dr. William H. Sheldon, author of the 1949 book Early American Cents and its 1958 update, Penny Whimsy, noted, “In the early days at the Mint the dies were all cut by hand, and a good deal of the personality of the diecutter was likely to find its way into the new die.”

That personality is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the massive number of large cents of 1794 that were struck. Collectors have long reveled in the series and delighted in giving the die varieties descriptive names.

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In 1869, just a few years after large cents were retired from circulation, Dr. Edward Maris wrote the ground-breaking Varieties of the Copper Issues of the United States Mint in the Year 1794, which detailed the year’s cents and christened many with fanciful names. 

“Double Chin” is the moniker given to Sheldon 18b, arguably the first 1794 Liberty Cap cent struck. Liberty on the coin appears to have a prominent double chin. The double chin obverse die was later married with a reverse to produce S-19, a coin with large pointed dentils on the reverse, a feature early collectors labeled “Ugly Teeth.”

One engraver went a little too deep when cutting Liberty’s cheek, giving her the appearance of having an apple stuffed in her mouth. “Apple Cheek” dies were paired with several reverse dies.

The Apple Cheek variety is so distinctive that it is sought after even by collectors who do not collect by die variety.

The Trephined Head variety — S-62 — is one of the more oddly named coins. A hole or depression at the back of Liberty’s head caused Dr. Maris to imagine a medical condition.

The most famous 1794 Liberty Cap cent is also the most enigmatic, the Starred Reverse cent. The coin, for reasons no one has ever been able to determine, has 94 tiny five-pointed stars placed between the dentils. About 50 are known today. 

John W. Adams, who sold his 1794 cent collection in a landmark 1982 fixed-price sale, noted, “For one hundred years, the ‘Starred Reverse’ has been the premier variety of 1794. Its origins have caused hours of speculation. Its acquisition inspires collectors to frenzied effort. Its very being is contemplated with what Dr. Sheldon described as ‘religious awe.’”

Sheldon, for his part, speculated the coin (S-48) was the “whim of an idle hour at the Mint.”

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