Your Guide to the Standard Reference Books on Early American Copper: The Top Ten

For the uninitiated, the world of early American copper can be a confusing place. The fledgling United States was decidedly behind their European contemporaries in minting technology and resources. The Philadelphia mint suffered for lack of good die steel, quality planchets, and skilled labor. As a result, those of us who collect the half cents and large cents of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have a vast number of distinct varieties to draw our attention. Consider: the 1794 large cent alone has 58 different varieties!

Luckily there are many excellent standard references to assist us in navigating the myriad possibilities open to us in this fascinating field of numismatics. Here are the meat and potatoes books to illuminate your path.

1.The Half Cent Die State Book 1793-1857

Since its publication in 2000, this volume has become THE half cent attribution book. Each variety is illustrated with multiple plates and individual die states are described for each variety as well. The research is far superior to Breen.

2. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents, 1793-1857

For a complete review of this book, see my review post here.

3. American half cents, the “little half sisters”: A reference book on the United States half cent coined from 1793 to 1857

This was the original attribution guide for U.S. half cents. Somewhat obsolete, the volume still has much merit and should be a part of every half cent lover’s library if for no other reason than to compare and contrast with the newer references.


Published in 2001 in collaboration with Del Bland and Mark Borckardt, this is by far the most current reference for early large cents. Not only are all known varieties illustrated and described but there are also many additional chapters on minting technology, mint errors, and much more.

5. United States Large Cents 1793 – 1814

From EAC: “A revision of Sheldon’s “Penny Whimsy”. Updated rarity ratings and condition census data for all varieties. Contains approximately a dozen new varieties not in Penny Whimsy. Superb 3 inch diameter plates of obverse and reverse of each variety with lots of additional plates for important die states.”

6. Penny Whimsy

The standard reference on early date large cents from 1958 until the Noyes update. Still very adequate today, though some newly discovered varieties are not represented.

7. United States Large Cents 1816 – 1839

Like his early date volume, this reference features huge 3 inch diameter plates of the obverse and reverse of every middle date variety. The Noyes books make attribution easy. Rarity ratings and condition census data are also a plus.

8. The Cent Book 1816 – 1839

This is my middle date reference of choice, simply because I’m so familiar with it. Like Noyes, every variety is illustrated front and back by large 3 inch photos. Historical information is plentiful and the included quick finder section is simple and easy to use. General condition census info and updated rarity ratings are included.

9. Attribution Guide for United States Large Cents 1840-1857 by John R. Grellman & Jules Riever

Unfortunately, I cannot locate a copy of this book to review it properly. However, every late date collector I know highly recommends it.

10. The Die Varieties of United States Large Cents, 1840-1957

Again, from EAC: “A 400+ page book which greatly improves upon the Newcomb book by the use of high quality line drawings for each variety. Contains much more descriptive data on each variety than found in Newcomb. One full page is devoted to each variety. Attribution of late date large cents has been greatly simplified by the use of this book.”

Hopefully this will help fuel interest in the early copper coinage of the United States. Next week we will discuss some of the important references available to those with a colonial bent. Colonial coinage has been gaining in popularity over the last 3 to 5 years and there are still some very affordable areas in which to concentrate your interest. If you love early American history and want to become a caretaker of these relics of our past, arm yourself with this knowledge. Enjoyment awaits!

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