Collecting the Cents of 1798 by Donovan Epling

1800 S196 obv

The S196 1800/179, a repurposed 1798 die

Mr. Donovan Epling is a former EAC member who wrote a wonderful piece for that club’s journal, Penny-Wise, back in May of 1999. The article, entitled “Collecting the Cents of 1798”, is both an excellent introduction to a fascinating method of collecting and a scholarly tutorial on the world of early U.S. copper collecting as a whole. As a current regional chairman of EAC, I love to share these stories about my particular favored niche of the hobby. Mr. Epling  and Penny-Wise editor Dr. Harry Salyards have generously allowed me to reprint this article here.  Enjoy!


Well, I’m back collecting early copper again. I first began about 10 years ago and collected off and on for several years. The first cent that I attributed was an 1802 S232 in VG8. I bought it unattributed and with the help of Penny-Whimsy, I was on my way toward a larger world. I took the shotgun approach at first and collected everything I could afford that caught my eye, at least in the early and middle dates, which held the most interest for me. I never did escape the shotgun approach and at one time owned a pretty awful S9 Wreath, several ’94’s, quite a few Draped Busts, an almost complete set of Classic Heads, a 1817 set, and quite a few other middle dates. I had fun along the way but my numismatic interests were broad and I drifted away. I sold my large cents to finance other pursuits, including a substantial collection of Barber Halves among other things (please don’t cringe, it gets better).

I’ve found that any old coin can be an interesting talisman of a bygone era but the interest lies in the link between the coin and the era. It’s more than that with early cents. I keep getting drawn back to early cents because the coins themselves are interesting, apart from any historical link. They are handmade Americana, the product of the engraver’s skill and the coiner’s art, or lack thereof. They are interesting because each one is unique and has a story to tell about how they are made, apart from history.

Now that I’ve been drawn back, what should I collect? This is the question that everyone asks and everyone wants the answer to. The Draped Busts have always been my favorites. I’m not sure why, they just are. I’ve decided to put away my shotgun and acquire some discipline. I may indeed expand my focus to include all Draped Busts but for now, I intend to narrow the chase to one year, 1798. Why? First, let me include a little historical background. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’ll borrow John Wright’s format somewhat.

In 1798, on the heels of the infamous XYZ affair involving French diplomats attempting to intimidate the Adams administration, the Federalist-led Congress passed the Sedition Act, which among other things threatened fines and imprisonment for publishing malicious writings against the government. The American schooner Retaliation was captured by France, which prompted Congress to end the treaty signed between the two countries in 1778, and an undeclared naval war began. Ex-President George Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the army to instill confidence and deal with the impending war with France. Congress officially created the U.S. Marine Corps. The 11th amendment was passed, preventing citizens from one state from suing another state. Finally, Mississippi Territory was created, including present-day Mississippi and Alabama.

Now to the cents. Why 1798? The year 1798 contains 46 varieties, 44 numbered and two NC’s, which are more varieties than any other year of the Draped Bust design. There are two distinct head punches with different hair styles, the only year in the Draped Bust series to use both, unless you count the 1800 / 1798 overdates, which are 1798 dies anyway. There are two different letter styles, two date sizes, two distinct wreaths used, and the 1798/7 overdates, which are the first overdates in the large cent series. In addition, the 1798’s were struck in 1798 and 1799. There are also distinctive die breaks, rim cuds, die failures, reused dies and individual rarity ratings from R1 to R7, none of which are impossible to obtain. It is also an 18th century coin, which has a certain appeal. All of these factors put together make 1798 a year with a little bit of everything that a cent collector could hope for.

There are six different groups that Sheldon used in Penny-Whimsy to classify the 1798’s, based on their obverse die characteristics. They are,

Group 1: Style 1 Hair, Style I Lettering, Large 8’s:

This group contains six varieties employing four different obverse dies. The point of interest for this group is that they have style 1 lettering which was replaced in late 1797 with style 2 lettering. In fact, the last 1797 obverse (S142 and S143) has style 2 lettering. It was the practice of the mint in those years to create working obverse dies but omit the final digit so that it could be used the following year if needed, i.e. a die would be created bearing the date 179 which could be punched with a final digit of 7 or 8 depending on the year of use. The 1806’over 179 cents are good examples of dies created initially with the date of 179 . I suspect that the 1″~98’s with style one lettering were created as follows: Late in 1797 four dies, the four from this group, with style I lettering were on hand, dated 179. An unknown number of additional dies were created using the new style 2 letter punches and dated 179. These two groups of dies were probably put together on a shelf until needed. At some point, the current 1797 usable dies were almost gone and three 179 – dies were pulled from the shelf, all three being style 2 letter dies. A seven was punched in for the last digit which created three additional 1797 working dies with style 2 lettering but only one was put into service, the die used for S142 and S143. The other two remained unusual at the end of the year. At the beginning of 1798, this left four style 1 letter dies dated 179 and two unused 1797 dated style 2 letter dies. I believe at this time in late December 1797 or early January 1798 that the four style 1 letter dies were punched with a final digit of 8 to create the four obverse dies that form this group.

Group 2: Overdates, Style 1 Hair, Style 2 Lettering, Large 81s:

This group contains three varieties employing two different obverse dies. Continuing the discussion above, I believe these two dies were created when two unused 1797 working dies were on hand at the end of 1797. The reason they have style 2 lettering rather than style 1 lettering is discussed above. They were sent back to the engraver, heated and softened, then punched with an 8 with the intent that dies should be dated bearing the year that they are used. As I’ll discuss later, this adherence to the law concerning dating was only casually observed.

Group 3: Style I Hair, Style 2 Lettering, Large 8s:

This group contains two varieties employing two different obverse dies. These two obverses continue to use the large 8, which is noticeably larger than the other digits. I haven’t read any theories as to why the 8 is larger on these and the preceding dies while subsequent dies, except one, use a smaller 8. No half dollars were minted bearing the date 1798 so it may or may not be the half dollar 8 punch. I don’t believe the large 8 is the same as used on 1798 Draped Bust Dollars. The dollars that I have seen have a noticeably different style 8 which is taller and thinner with oval loops rather than the round loops on the large cent 8 punch. There is no evidence that the large 8 punch broke and was replaced with a different, smaller 8, either. Further research may shed some light on the reason for these different 8 punches.

Group 4: Style I Hair, Style 2 Lettering, Small 8’s:

This group contains twelve varieties employing eight different obverse dies. This group is also the first to contain the reused 1796 reverses and in addition, contains both NC varieties. The classification of the cents up to this point, along with the emission sequence, seems straightforward and logical. This group however is hard to fit into a neat sequence. The annual yellow fever epidemics prevalent in Philadelphia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries may hold the explanation. After the epidemic of 1796, the Mint Director, Elias Boudinot, successfully petitioned Congress to give him the authority to close the mint during an epidemic if the severity warranted. In 1798, yet another epidemic broke out in Philadelphia, which was particularly severe, and the Director closed the mint for three months beginning August 20th . Although the mint had closed for a month in 1797 due to yellow fever, it didn’t completely shut down. In fact, Adam Eckfeldt, Henry Voight, and Albion Cox remained behind to carry on some of the mint duties. During the 1798 shutdown however, the mint completely ceased to operate. Among other things, all usable dies were boxed up and shipped to the Bank of the United States for safekeeping. Apparently, the reverse dies used in 1796 were among the dies deemed usable and boxed up with the others. When the mint reopened in November, whatever dies were on hand were used, which accounts for the odd pairings of 1798 obverses with 1796 reverses. In addition, this probably accounts for the rusted dies used in this group, which were not stored properly during the shutdown.

Group 5: Style 2 Hair, Style 2 Lettering, Large 81s:

This group contains three varieties employing one obverse die. I believe this obverse die may have been completed and used before the dies in the previous group. It’s well documented by Sheldon and Breen that the style 1 hair punch, or matrix, began to break sometime in mid 1798. This is evident by several obverses in the preceding group with style 1 hair that have the top of the hair unfinished where the matrix had chipped. This necessitated the creation of a new matrix and the style 2 hair punch was created. I believe that when dies were created, they were not created one at a time. Instead, four or five dies were probably made at the same time, which would have been more efficient. This would create a reserve of five to ten unused dies on hand at any given time. I suspect that several style 1 hair dies were being created, the matrix broke, the style 2 hair matrix was created, then more obverse dies were created with the new matrix. All of these dies were dated 179_ and kept together until ready to be used. During this time, style 1 hair dies with the large 8 continued in service. When a new die was needed, I believe a style 2 hair die, the one from this group, was pulled from the shelf, possibly along with one or more style 1 hair dies. These dies were punched with a large 8 and put into service. I believe this puts the obverse die from this group chronologically before the dies from the previous group. I believe the chronological sequence can better be determined by the 8 punch rather than the hair style, because the 8 was punched in immediately prior to use, whereas the creation of a die up to this point may have included a period of several months where the die sat on a shelf waiting to be used. This theory assumes that a clean chronological break occurred between the use of the large 8 and small 8. 1 think with the evidence we have that this is more likely than assuming a clean chronological break between the style 1 and style 2 hair punches.

Group 6: Style 2 Hair, Style 2 Lettering, Small 8’s:

This group contains twenty varieties employing thirteen different obverse dies. This is by far the largest of the groups of 1798 cents and the hardest to attribute. The majority of cents in this group were probably minted in 1799. The delivery records from the mint show 979,510 cents delivered in 1798 and 904,585 cents delivered in 1799. As even the casual cent collector knows, the 1799 cents are considerably rarer than the cents of 1798. Breen speculates that 42,540 cents were coined with the 1799 perfect date obverse die. There were also 1799/8 cents coined and die break progression on the two reverse dies used proves that these cents were coined before some of the 1798 varieties. One of the varieties in this group also employs a reused 1796 reverse, which was used after the obverse had already been paired with 1798 reverses. Based on this information, it’s hard to classify this odd paring as a result of the reopening of the mint after the yellow fever epidemic of 1798. Perhaps it was an odd pairing after the 1799 epidemic. I’m sure we’ll never know for certain. It’s curious that the mint at times took great pains to overdate usable dies, to conform to the law requiring coinage to bear the current year, but at other times continued to strike coins with dies dated the previous year, such as the 1798 cents. I suppose we’ll never know exactly why. Perhaps it was left up to the engraver or coiner to make the decision. Perhaps it had something to do with the Director’s unofficial policy. Once Robert Patterson assumed the position of Mint Director in 1805, the practice largely stopped. This is just another of the mysterious intricacies of the early cents.

On a final historical note, I own a copy of the Worcester Gazette dated October 3rd , 1798. it includes the following: “State of the Fever: In Philadelphia, it has not at all abated. The number of deaths, from the 1 9th of September, at noon, to the 2e at noon, was 517. The number of new cases reported in the same time, was 658. By this statement, it appears, that nearly four fifths of those, who are taken with the disorder, die.”

Entries were also made for New York, Wilmington, New London, and Boston.

An ad states: “Ran away on the night of the 19th of August, a lad, named Moses Stone, 19 years old. Whoever will take up said runaway, and return him to the subscriber, shall have one cent reward. Seth Stone.” I wonder if it was a 1798 Draped Bust Cent!

I currently have four of the 46 varieties – an S171, S182, S185, and S186. All are in the VG to Fine range. I would really like to build a choice Fine to VF set, but I’m sure I’ll be limited by the availability of nice coins, not to mention my finances. Oh well. As Sheldon observes, you can’t shoot an 18 in a round of golf but you can go from 90 to 80- I’ll have to keep that in mind as I build my set. Wish me luck!

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