On the evening of 9th July 1792, two of America’s founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson arrived at the home of a man called John Harper on Sixth and Cherry Street in Philadelphia. With them was David Rittenhouse, appointed by President Washington just nine days earlier as the first Director of the United States Mint. Land for the new mint had already been identified on Seventh Street, and Rittenhouse would lay the cornerstone for the new building later that month. However, the coin presses that had been ordered from England wouldn’t arrive until September, and so the first coins wouldn’t be struck at the new premises until December. No one wanted to wait that long to see what the first official coins produced at the US Mint would look like.
John Harper, a saw maker from New Jersey, kept a screw press in his cellar designed by Mint employee Adam Eckfeldt, who would go on to build other machinery for the Mint and help to oversee the production of the early coins. Harper agreed to allow his cellar to become the temporary home of the US Mint so that the first official coins could be struck there in a range of metals, sizes and designs to test what worked and what didn’t. Earlier that day the President had sent Rittenhouse an instruction authorising him to strike dimes (originally spelt ‘dismes’), half dimes and cents. Now, the men eagerly crowded into the cellar to watch as history was made.
The U.S. Congress had passed its first Coinage Act three months earlier on 2nd April 1792, authorising the creation of the official Mint in Philadelphia to strike the coins of the United States. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton defined the United States dollar as a unit of pure of silver weighing precisely the same as the Spanish dollar, which was already in common use. The new Act made the silver dollar the legal tender of the country and created a decimal system for US currency.
The first draft of the Act stipulated that all coins would depict a portrait of the president on the obverse. However, by the final version, the requirement had changed to a depiction of liberty, as well as the word ‘LIBERTY’. Engravers were contracted to begin designing and preparing dies for the new coins, even before there was a mint to strike them. Some of these tools may have been produced in England, and sadly little is known about the artists who designed the early test pieces.
We know that the portrait of Liberty that appeared on the copper cent was engraved by an artist called Birch because he helpfully put his name on her shoulder above the date 1792. Surviving mint records list his name as “Bob Birch”, and it appears that he was privately commissioned in 1792 because his name doesn’t appear in the official list of mint employees. It has long been believed that he was from England, but the absence of any tangible information about a Bob (or Robert) Birch allows for the speculation that the artist may have been William Birch (1755-1834), a noted British engraver and painter of miniature enamels. Born in Warwick, Birch exhibited his tiny portraits at the Royal Academy and emigrated to Philadelphia in 1794 after attracting wealthy patrons on both sides of the Atlantic, including President Washington himself. In Britain, a ‘bob’ was a popular slang expression for a shilling, so the name listed in the mint records may have been the artist’s nickname.
The design of the first official cent produced in the United States depicts a flowing haired Liberty with the inscription ‘LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY’ and the year of issue, ‘1792’. On the reverse, there is a decorated laurel wreath around the denomination ‘ONE CENT’ with the words’ UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’. There is also the fraction ‘1/100’ which shows the origin of the word ‘cent’ as the coin is literally one per cent of a dollar. An earlier version of the design bore the inscription ‘G.W.PT’ (George Washington, President) instead of the fraction but this was probably changed because Washington objected to having his image or a reference to him on a coin.
It would appear that only a small handful of cents bearing the Birch design were minted in John Harper’s cellar that day, which accounts for their extreme rarity. The fact that they may have been struck in the presence of Washington and Jefferson makes them even more valuable and among the most popular of all the prototype (or pattern) coins ever produced by the US Mint.
Of the ten specimens that are thought to exist, one sold at auction in 2015 for nearly $2.6 million. When asked why he had paid so much for a cent, the delighted new owner explained that “the history is important. This is our earliest depiction of what we thought of ourselves as a nation.”