A Sense of Colonial Cents

Close your eyes and hang on. I’m swinging in a completely different direction in time and space from my recent posts. Today I’m heading back in time about 230 years. Keep your eyes closed. Imagine colonial America. The Revolutionary War ended just four years ago. A convention is being planned for next month where the Constitution will be developed. George Washington has been enjoying fame as America’s Cincinnatus, but also has gone into self proclaimed retirement from public duty. That is all about to change. The year is 1787. Hope is the in the air because the years following the War have been muddled with doubt and uncertainty about the future of this new country. Europe is standing by and betting that the fledgling young country will collapse. During this time each of the thirteen states has a claim of sovereignty and each has fears of Congress becoming the next British Parliament. Congress’s power over the states, as demonstrated during the War on many occasions, is weak. Attempts by the Continental Congress to secure troops and funds from the colonies often went unanswered. A paper currency funded at the congressional level failed to gain traction during the war and recently died out, having lost its value in the public’s eye. The use of foreign coins is still common, but pride in independence breeds a desire to turn away from it. Congress will eventually create the federal mint in 1792, but until then some states have begun to mint their own coins. These coins would be short lived as minting would cease at or before the ratification of the Constitution of the United States and subsequent creation of a permanent federal coinage. Their brief existence, however, like a spark before a fire, represented the beginning of something great.

Open your eyes. In your hand are six coins. These aren’t the only coins in circulation, but they happen to be from the more common mints of the time. These coins are unique as they originated from the colonies themselves. The same people that made this country, made these coins. The luster of fresh copper has already tarnished, or in some cases never really shined due to the quality of the metal used. Each are about the size of a contemporary quarter, with images and text pressed into them. What do those etchings mean? Where do the coins they come from? Set them down on the bar, order a whiskey, and let’s talk. These coins tell a story. They tell of young states searching for meaning within a new order, but also wanting to remain proud of their own individual heritage.

A fascinating characteristic of colonial coins is the variety within each type. If you had two coins of the same type, chances are they would be different in some way. You’ll notice changing size and shape of facial features, size and shape of symbols, added or removed symbols and variations in the text. These changes are all due to the fact that the mints that produced them were small outfits, operated completely by the sweat and manual labor of colonial Americans. The dies were all handmade. When one die wore out or cracked a new one was engraved but invariably the replacement die was different in some way from the original– intentionally or unintentionally. Like an artist who can’t paint the same painting twice, the result is a wide ranging set of variations within each coin type. They pressed the dies into each planchet one at a time using a screw or drop press then knocked the coin onto the floor to make room for the next. Depending on how long it took each die to wear out or crack resulted in the degree of rarity of that design. As you know, where there is variety and rarity, a collecting hobby will be born. Let’s look at these coins one at a time and discuss its design.

 Nova Constellation Coppers

Pick up the coin with ”NOVA CONSTELLATIO” surrounding sunburst rays emanating from a central eye. There are thirteen starts placed amongst the rays. On the one side is a wreath with a fancy “US” in the middle. Surrounding the wreath are the words “LIBERTAS ET JUSTITIA” – Liberty and Justice. Nova Constellatio means “New Constellation” in reference to the newly independent United States joining the world’s family of nations.   The sunburst motif combined with the word “NOVA” invokes the birth of a bright star in the night sky, as in a supernova (we’ll ignore the fact that a supernova is actually signaling the death of a star). The Nova Constellatio Coppers are my second favorite colonial coin. Being a space enthusiast as well as a numismatist, I love the analogy of the birth of our nation to a constellation of stars.


Figure 1. – Nova Constellatio Copper, 1783 – 1785 (Internet photo)

The fascinating genesis of this coin began in 1783 when it was recognized that a federal coin was needed. The design was created, some samples were minted, but the idea appears to have been shelved until 1785 when a private firm, a joint venture between notables in New York and London, restarted it. It is believed that the coins dated 1783 were probably also minted in 1785. The Nova Constellatio coins are the only coins I identify as coins of the United States that were actually minted in a foreign country. These coins were minted in England by the trading company Constable, Rucker & Co.

Significant quantities of these coins were transported to the States. The value put on them probably varied widely as there isn’t a value stated in the engraving. I like the oddity of this coin.   It has a very simple, patriotic design, but being minted in England and done so soon after Revolutionary War was ended adds a bit of irony to its history.

Connecticut Coppers

Your next coin has the letters “AUCTORI CONNEC” along one side, which means “ by the authority of Connecticut”. There are more varieties of the Connecticut Coppers than any other coin of the time. It seems that the die used to mint these coins wore out frequently and the engraver enjoyed making each die different from the previous one. These coins were minted in Connecticut from 1785-1788.


Figure 2. – Connecticut Coppers, 1785-1788 (Internet Photo)

 Each Connecticut copper features a Male Bust (with the text “ AUCTORI CONNEC”) on one side and a seated lady of liberty on the reverse surrounded by variations of “INDE ET LIB”, an abbreviation of “ Independence and Liberty”. Sprinkled between the words are varying dots and symbol patterns. These dots and symbols had a habit of changing type, location and quantity over the course of the minting of this coin. I honestly don’t find the design greatly inspiring as it closely mirrors British coins of the time. Perhaps this was intentional to gain easy acceptance of the coin in society, but it has the down side of being…well…boring.

 New Jersey Coppers

Pick up the coin with a head of a horse on one side.  Your third coin has a completely different look from the Connecticut coin. It’s the design from Jew Jersey. Second to its Connecticut counterpart in the number of varieties, the design is highly unique and fully American. Minted in New Jersey from 1786-1788, it’s reported that many of these coins were minted by overstriking other state and British coins.


Figure 3. – New Jersey Coppers, 1786-1788 (Internet Photo)

 One side of this coin has horse’s head and a plow with the legend “NOVA CAESAREA”, which apparently is a Latin take on the name of the state.  To me the horse and plow is a symbol of the core industries of the time – farming. It represented prosperity and productivity by the every day man.   The other side has a shield and the legend “E Pluribus Unum”, which as you know, means “from many – one”. The shield and the “E Pluribus Unum” phrase will find its way onto U.S. Mint coins for years to come.   I like this coin because it has a wonderful blend of state and country pride.

 Vermont Coppers

There were two designs of the coins from Vermont. Fortunately you have on the table the better of the two, in my opinion. This design was the first, and like your first, instinctive answer to a test question, represented a truer sense of the people of the state. It is called the “landscape type”. What may seem indistinct at first will, as you look closer, become recognizable as a scenic view of rolling hills and a high ridge. Atop the high ridge are pine trees to the left and a sunrise to the right.   Below the scenic view is a plow. Similar to the New Jersey coin, this plow was very familiar to the common man. Combined together the motif is a reminder of how much they loved this land and honored its beauty. Surrounding the scene are the words “VERMONTIS RES PUBLICA”, or some variation thereof, referring to the Republic of Vermont.


Figure 4. – Vermont Copper, 1785-1788 (Internet Photo)

 On the opposite side is an all-seeing eye similar to the Nova Constellatio design (reminds me of the all seeing eye at tip of the pyramid on the back of our paper dollar bill of today), surrounded by a sunburst. At the tip of the sun’s rays are 13 stars. The words around the picture will flip your lid. The legend reads “STELLA QUARTA DECIMA”, which translates to “The 14th Star”.   From what I’ve read, this is a direct reference to Vermont’s ambition to become of the 14th State! Love of state, love of country.

Unfortunately, due to concerns with the coin being accepted by the public, the landscape design was replaced after just one year. In 1786 the design was changed to a portrait design. The picture was that of King George II/III. On the opposite side was the seated figure of Britannia. This design is a copy of the England coinage, also used by the Connecticut coppers.

Massachusetts Coppers

Pick up the coin with the standing Indian on one side. My favorite of the state coins is this product of Massachusetts. There is something real, and almost eerily symbolic, with the appearance of an indian on a coin of this era. At a time when indian nations were entities to be fought with, bargained with, befriended and, sadly, often betrayed, yet whose image was put on a coin as a symbol. I often wonder what the indian represented to the designers of the coin and to the general public. A friend? A foe? A barrier to western expansion? Why put the image on the coin? While there may be theories, to me this is an intriguing mystery. The indian is holding a long bow whose shape and size will vary from die to die.


Figure 5. – Massachusetts Copper, 1787-1788 (Internet Photo)

 On the other side of the coin is a beautiful spread eagle. Like the Shield of the New Jersey Copper, this eagle would live long passed the life of the Massachusetts state coins and eventually find a home in federal coins of the United States.  The eagle is holding an olive branch and a fist-full of arrows. These size and number of arrows would also vary over time. Massachusetts coppers were the first to use the word “Cent” on a coin, meaning 1/100 of a dollar. The word is located on the shield on the eagle’s chest.

Similar to the Vermont copper, the design of the Massachusetts copper is organic. It speaks to something basic and meaningful to the people of the time. To me the Indian is a sign of the state’s natural beginnings. Two hundred years later it still conjures emotions of the pioneer days when the land that was to become the United States was still mostly unexplored frontier. The eagle brings balance to the design by adding what would become a national emblem of the new nation. The olive branch and the arrows being the symbols of peace but also military strength, reminding us of the recent success of the Continental Army. What more can I say – it’s an awesome coin.

Fugio Coppers (1787)

While the state coins are fascinating, the time came in 1787 for the first federally authorized coins. The design is credited to Benjamin Franklin. There are aspects of it I like and some that I don’t. Pick up the coin with a circle of circles on one side. These are the first widely circulated coins of the United States of America, and they are commonly called Fugio Coppers.


Figure 6. – Fugio Cent, 1787 (Internet Photo)

Let’s look at the best side first –  the side with a circle of circles. Better described as a chain, it’s composed of 13 links representing the union of the colonies. In the center of the chain circle is another circle that says “United States”.   In the center of the smaller circle are the words “We Are One”. An unbroken chain, as strong as it’s weakest link, ringing with the words “We are One”.  You just can’t get any more American than that! Now to the other side. Flip over the coin and you’ll find a sundial in it’s center. Shining down on the dial is a sun.  Counterclockwise from the sun is the word “Fugio” which means “Time Flies”. Further around to the lower edge are the English words “Mind Your Business”. Around to the 3 o’clock position is the year – 1787. To me the symbolism used in the design is a bit too abstract, but who would argue with Ben Franklin! The combined reference to the quick passage of time and a reminder to focus on “business” appears to be a request of the public to do their part in the prosperity of the newly independent country. Minting of this coin ended in 1788.

The Rest is History

The feeble beginnings of home grown coinage would give way in 1793 to the Liberty Cap half cent and flowing hair large cent. The liberty bust would get a hat and be called the Liberty Cap cent starting in 1794. In 1800 the Draped Bust cent would begin a nine year run before giving way to the Classic Head cent in 1809. These coins were the beginning of a line referred to as the Large Cents, as they were still about the size of a modern quarter. It would be replaced with the small cent in 1857.

Gather up the coins and put them in your pocket. It’s time to return to the 21st century, but the coins you carry will remain as our connection to the beginning of our country. It may be seen as a trifle to some, but to me it’s much more than a decorated piece of metal. They are small circular windows to a time of legends. Hold them and wonder who else might have once carried them in their pocket – Benjamin Franklin? Thomas Jefferson? Maybe even George Washington! ?   Regardless of who carried them then, you now have the honor of preserving them from this point forward. Do it well and ensure that generations ahead can appreciate what they stand for and where they came from.

Book reference

Want to learn more about Colonial Coins? The best reference I’ve ever found is the Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins: The Only Authoritative Reference on All Pre-Federal Coinage, by Q. David Bowers. In this book you find much more depth and more detail about the history of these coins and all the variations in their design. I’ve only summarized and scratched the surface of the subject.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s