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A Look at US Large Cents: Examining Their History and Their Uses Beyond Just Monetary Purposes



I don't think I've ever met anyone who doesn't enjoy finding large cents. They sound so beautiful when you sweep over them with your coil. I personally always feel a little burst of excitement when I dig one up. There's just something about seeing a copper in the hole that seems to instantly put a smile on my face.


The United States large cent has a long and fascinating history. It is essentially the first coin to ever be mass produced by the United States government and one of the first coins to be issued by the US federal government and produced on their own machinery, within their own premises. The US large cent was first struck in the year 1793. It was coined every year consecutively from 1793-1857 with exception of the year 1815. During the early days of the US mint, blanks or planchets were imported in to America. The US would receive shipments of them from Great Britain. The War of 1812 halted shipments from Great Britain into the US though. There were no shipments of blanks or planchets to the United States from April of 1812 to October of 1814. They weren't available again until after the end of the war. A huge chunk of the US mint"s inventory of copper blanks was used up during that time and as a result of limited copper blanks being available, an 1815 US large cent was not minted by the federal government. There were US large cents that were struck during the year 1815, but they were almost certainly all dated 1814. There are some people out there who believe that a handful of 1815 large cents were produced by the US mint. A few have surfaced over the years, but none of the coins have been proven to be legitimate to my knowledge.


There are 7 principal types of the US large cent. The first type produced was the flowing hair cent with chain reverse (1793) also referred to by many as the chain cent. It's a coin prized by collectors due to its small mintage, low survival rate, one year design, and the fact that it is the first regular federally issued US coin. It proved to be unpopular during its time however and was quickly replaced.



The flowing hair large cent with wreath reverse was also minted in 1793. It is often referred to as the wreath cent. Lady liberty's flowing hair is even longer and there is a wreath on the reverse side instead of a chain. Scholars are undecided as to which plants in particular are depicted in the wreath design.



The third type of large cent produced is the Liberty Cap large cent. It was minted from 1793 to 1796. Lady liberty's wild hair is tamed. Her hair is partially covered with a phrygian cap.



The draped bust large cent was minted from 1796-1807. Lady liberty is found wearing drapery at her neck line and has a ribbon in her flowing hair.



Classic head large cents were produced from 1808-1814. Their name derives from the fillet worn by lady liberty. The copper metal used to make classic head large cents contained less impurities and was of a higher quality. It was also softer and more prone to wear and corrosion.



The coronet large cent was minted from 1816- 1857. There are two similar designs of the Coronet large cent, the matron head and the braided hair. Matron head large cents were produced from 1816-1839. Lady liberty has a more mature look hence the name matron head.



Braided hair large cents were minted from 1839-1857. Lady liberty had a slimmer more youthful appearance. In 1868, eleven years after the production large cent were discontinued, a US mint employee coined several braided hair large cents dated 1868.



A cent by itself won’t buy anything anymore, but if you were to travel backward in time you'd find that the large cent held some value in it's day. Times were different and the the US cent was a denomination that had buying power which meant there was incentive to counterfeit it. The lead counterfeit large cent pictured below was dug by Donnie Bailey.



The large cent was your everyday type of coin used frequently in daily transactions by early American citizens. Sometimes the large cents we find while out detecting are cut in half or even quarters. People would actually cut the coins themselves into smaller pieces to make change or use the cut coins to pay for good or services. The cut large cents pictured below were all found by Todd Yerks.


I know that one cent seems like a very trivial amount to begin with, so it's really hard to imagine people using half of one cent or even a quarter of one cent in a transaction but they did. Cutting large cents was actually more common a practice than one might think. The 1/4 cut large cent pictured below was found by Kirk Adams in Breakabeen, NY.



Pictured below is another 1/4 cut large cent. It was dug by Chris O'Connor.



Edward Rifenberg found the 1831 1/2 cut large cent pictured below.


Several altered large cents have been dug over the years. Its relatively common to find one where the letter e in cent has been altered to the letter u. People could use a tool such as a graver to move the metal in the lettering into a desired shape and alter the lettering of the coins. Jeff Filaseta dug the large cent pictured below. It's been suggested that the coins were altered and then used in brothels. It's possible I suppose but I wasn't able to find any documentary evidence to prove it. It's also very possible that the large cents were simply just altered by folks for their own amusement and the trend caught on.



If you're lucky, in your metal detecting adventures you might also dig up an interesting counterstamped or countermarked large cent. Counterstamped and countermarked coins were marked with letters, names, or symbols at some point after their production. There is an example of a counterstamped copper pictured below. It is marked with the letters J.G and was found by Dale Long.


A counterstamp is set into an existing coin usually by a die on a press. A countermark is hand punched into the coin by a hammer or simple machine. The counterstamped large cent pictured below was found by David Quickenton. It is marked with the letters DM.



Counterstamps are a novelty of sorts. Little advertisements from a time long ago. They're like little, mini billboards that folks carried around in their pockets. The counterstamped copper pictured below was found by Edward Rifenberg. It is marked Devins and Bolton, Montreal. This merchant counterstamped coins from around the world that he came across, primarily U.S. and Canadian coins or tokens.



The S. PYE counterstamped large cent pictured below was also found by Edward Rifenberg.



Pictured below is a D. Jones counterstamped large cent that was found by Peter Teal in Clarksville NY.



The J Demuth counterstamped large cent pictured below was dug by Wally Armstrong Jr. There seems to be two possibilities regarding the origin of this counterstamp. It may be related to the circa 1832 Demuth, tool and punch maker or the Demuth family of gunsmiths in Pennsylvania (1770-1830).



Dave Wise found a M.Tidd Woburn counterstamped large cent. It was stamped by Marshall Tidd of Woburn Massachusetts, a gunsmith who outfitted many sharpshooters during the Civil War.



Donnie Bailey dug a large cent, pictured below, that is counterstamped with a symbol and holed. Coins were holed for a variety of reasons really. It's been suggested that the large cents with larger sized holes located near their rim, like the one Donnie found, may have been used for a teething infant. Parents would hole the large cents, attach them to a string, and use them to help soothe their child who was teething. It also could have possibly been used as a watch fob.



Large cents were holed and also sewn into clothes to prevent them from being lost or used to replace a missing button. The large cent pictured below was found by Edward Rifenberg. It has two small holes located in it's center and most likely was probably used as a button at one point. It also may have possibly been used as a children's toy as well.



Some people believe that large cents like the one Dave Wise found, that is pictured below, were repurposed and used as a children's toy. The coin has two small holes punched through the center and may have been threaded with a string to create a "whizzer" toy. It's certainly possible I suppose. I have heard the argument that coins were to valuable to be repurposed into a children's toy. That however is a pretty subjective statement. For some people I'm sure that may be true, but it's all really just relative to ones financial status. I personally kind of like the idea that the coin may have been repurposed into a toy. It's cool to imagine that some child may have been entertained by the coin and enjoyed playing with it.



There's is an illustration of a whizzer below, that Dave Wise shared with me. The way I understand it, the child would have placed their thumbs on each end of the sting. They would spin the coin until the string was wound up and then pull briskly on the string. The toy would make a whizzing sound as it unwound and rewound.



Some large cents were holed and attached to a chain in order to be worn around ones neck. Or even just to be stringed together for easier handling. This helped to prevent the coin from getting lost before you were ready to use it in a transaction. Historians believe that people also wore them as jewelry. The coins with smaller sized holes near their rims could have been used for bracelets or charms. The large cents pictured below were all found by Jeff Filaseta. You can see from the photo that two are holed in their center and one is hole by it's rim. One the large cents in the photo is cut in half as well.



Some holed coins, the ones with larger round holes in their center, were obviously repurposed and possibly used as washers. David Symula found the large cent with the large round hole pictured below.



It's been suggested that when suppliers increased the prices of washers from 1/4 cent each to 2 cents each that many large cents were holed and used in the place of actual washers. Todd Yerks dug the large cent with nail that is pictured below. They came out of the hole together like that. Todd describes it as the actual definition of a tough target. I don't think I could describe it any better myself. I imagine it didn't sound pretty, probably the kind of signal that a lot of people would pass up on.



During their heyday, people didn't really like large cents. For whatever reason they just weren't liked by the general population during their time of use. I believe that's partly why they underwent so many changes in design over the years especially early on. Some historians believe that a lot of them were melted down or repurposed for different uses. It's been suggested that some large cents were melted down and used to make copper buttons, hotel keys, gun sights, gears, or other various items.


The large cent pictured below was dug by Kendall Edkins. It is clearly altered and we believe it was repurposed and used for another purpose other than money. It possibly could have been used as a rowel on a spur. It might have also been used and made into a tool of some sort, possibly for leaving stitch marks on leather or maybe as a pastry wheel or pie crust cutter.



Todd Yerks also found a large cent with it's edges altered into the shape of points. It has two small holes in it's center as well. I can't imagine that people would take the time to alter a coin in such a manner, unless they intended to use it for an alternate purpose. Why go to all that trouble? The coin Todd found is pictured below along with another holed coin that he dug.



Kendall Edkins found another coin that was altered into the shape of a hexagon and is holed in the middle. I'm not sure what purpose of cutting and or shaving off the edges into a hexagon shape would have served exactly. It's a really neat and intriguing find that brings a lot of questions to my mind.



David Quickenton dug the rolled up large cent pictured below. It makes you really wonder why it was rolled up and for what purpose exactly.



Kendall Edkins found another interesting looking large cent. It is cut into a crescent shape. When coins were cut into pieces for monetary transactions they were generally halved or quartered. The shape of cut on this one makes you wonder if it was done so for an alternate purpose and why.



Matthew Clynes found the altered large cent pictured below. Lady liberty's head is cut out. During the 1860's, there was a faction of Democrats in the union who opposed the Civil War and wanted to simply just make an immediate peace settlement with the confederates. They became known as the copperheads since their opponents viewed them as well snakes. They wore badges that were a play on the words copper and head. Their badges were cut out from large cents and added to a pin or sometimes worn as a watch fob.



Copper large cents were used in various other ways as well. People would add them to pickle jars and store owners would often throw a few into pickle barrels. The large cents would turn the pickles bright green in color. Large cents were also used for medicinal purposes. Copper has been used to purify water and treat wounds as far back as 2000 BC. Undertakers sometimes placed coins on the eyelids of the deceased in order to keep their eyes shut.


A lot of altered large cents have been discovered over the years. Without documentary evidence it's impossible to know for sure why the coins were altered. I'd really love to see pictures of the altered large cents you have found. Or if you have an example of a rare large cent you have found or even just one that you have dug that came out of the ground in beautiful condition, please post them in the comments section. I hope you have a wonderful week. Happy Hunting!

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