Copper has been part of the nation’s yuletide holidays since its earliest days when tiny copper candle holders and hammered-copper ornaments hung from the first Christmas trees, and celebratory wassail was served in copper cups. These were times when lucky youngsters might even receive a special gift—a “copper,” which, after 1793, meant a U.S. large cent.
Large cents, the first coins ever struck by the United States Mint, are part of a copper coinage tradition that dates to earlier colonial times. The first circulating U.S. copper coin, the 1787 Fugio cent, actually predated the U.S. Mint. Designed by Founding Father Benjamin Franklin and variously known as the “Franklin cent,” “Congress cent,” and “national cent,” this 10.2-gram copper coin was not a true cent (1/100th of a dollar), but a close equivalent of the English copper halfpenny.
The U.S. Continental Congress of the Confederation authorized the Fugio cent and contracted its production to a private Connecticut mint, ambitiously ordering 300 tons of copper to be struck into millions of Fugio cents over several years. But only 4.1 tonnes (metric ton = 1.1 standard ton) of copper became 400,000 coins.
The biggest problem facing the production of the Fugiocent and all early American copper coinage was a shortage of copper, a metal with a plethora of uses. Ranking 25th in abundance among the Earth’s crust elements, copper is as common as zinc and nickel. Slightly harder than gold and silver, it is somewhat less dense than silver and nearly as malleable and ductile.
Copper has excellent durability and corrosion resistance, and distinctive reddish color. It polishes to a bright luster. With a melting point just lower than that of silver, it is easily workable. Much more common and less valuable than gold or silver, copper is ideal for “everyday” coinage. Copper occurs as a native metal and as such oxidized, brightly colored, blue-green minerals as azurite and malachite. Most copper, however, is found in deeper, massive deposits of sulfide minerals.
Throughout the 1700s, copper was in high demand and short supply. It was fashioned into kitchenware and table utensils and was the primary component of brass (copper-zinc) and bronze (copper-tin) alloys. Much was also used as protective sheathing on the hulls of ships.
At that time, most copper came from the mines of Cornwall, England. Only a few small mines in the American colonies, mostly in Connecticut and New Jersey, collectively produced about 100 tonnes of copper per year. The Coinage Act of April 2, 1792, established the United States Mint and authorized the production of copper, silver, and gold coinage. Because the Mint’s first coins, the large cent, and half-cent, would be struck in copper, Congress also authorized the metal’s purchase not to exceed 135 tonnes.
But when neither mines nor warehouses could supply the necessary copper, the Mint began placing ads in various Philadelphia publications: “The highest price will be given for old copper at the Mint, No. 29 North Seventh Street, Philadelphia.” On September 11, 1792, the Mint purchased its first lot of coinage metal—six pounds of scrap copper for the sum of one dollar.
By that December, the Mint had paid $269.86 to acquire 1,600 pounds of scrap copper, mostly as old copper nails and hull sheathing. After offering a more competitive price, the Mint bought even more scrap copper, sometimes in hundred-pound lots. But scrap purchases were not enough, and the Mint was forced to import English copper despite its high tariff.
During its first year of operation in 1793, the Mint struck 110,512 large cents and 35,334 half cents from nearly two tonnes of copper.
But many of these coins met an unexpected fate. Because their intrinsic value approximated their face value, Philadelphia and New York metalworkers began melting the coins down as a convenient source of copper. In 1795, the Mint reduced the weight of the large cent from 13.48 grams to 10.89 grams, and the weight of the half-cent proportionally.
In its first four years, the Mint struck 1.67 million large cents and 195,314 half cents from 20 tonnes of copper. This copper was an English “run-of-the-smelter” metal—reasonably pure but containing sufficient amounts of lead, iron, and other metals to inadvertently increase its hardness.
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