So much change over such a small period of time.
The large cents of 1793 to 1814 – referred to as the Early Dates by their fans – underwent what might seem to a neophyte collector a bewildering series of rapid design changes, particularly when compared to the design stagnation that has affected the cent from 1909 to 1958 and from 1959 to 2008.
During the 22 years that constitute Early Date large cent production, four distinct obverse design types were introduced, used, and discarded in rapid succession, while two completely different reverse design themes were used, one for just 12 days.
COIN VALUES: See how much Early Date large cents are worth today
The cent was the first U.S. coin struck in quantity for circulation. The first cents were struck from March 1-12, 1793. Those first 36,103 coins represent one of the most desirable of all U.S. coins: the 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent.
The designs of the new cent garnered almost instant criticism. The reverse design in particular triggered outrage, as politicians and citizens misinterpreted the major design elements of a chain consisting of 15 interlocking links. Each link represented one of the 15 states of the Union, but many saw the design as a "chain of slavery." The obverse design – a bare-headed female allegorical portrait of Liberty with flowing locks of hair – was criticized for appearing mad.
The Chain reverse design was the first to go; it was replaced by a Wreath design. The new Flowing Hair Liberty was introduced on the obverse. The 1793 Flowing Hair, Wreath cent went into production on April 9, less than a month after production of the Flowing Hair, Chain cent ceased. Production nearly doubled, to 63,353 coins, before a new obverse design was introduced.
Production of the 1793 Liberty Cap, Wreath cent began in early September 1793. A completely new, less "savage" Liberty portrait was created. She remained bare-headed, but she also carried a pole topped by a Liberty cap over her shoulder. A completely different, two-branch, olive Wreath design was introduced, replacing the first Wreath design (composed of uncertain flora). Production of this version of the cent continued until April 1796.
The Draped Bust obverse design was used from July 1796 through December 1808. Liberty appears as a buxom female with long hair flowing below the shoulder line, and her bust draped in cloth (hence the name). Many were struck on planchets provided by a private firm in Great Britain!
The Classic Head cent – last of the Early Date cents – was in production from 1808 through 1814. Liberty wears a "fillet'" or headband bearing the word LIBERTY, the first time that word appeared as part of Liberty's portrait.
Early Date large cents offer many dozens of die varieties, an advanced area of collecting.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: