By Steve Carr
Early American copper coins come in a wide array of colors, hues, and condition. They have a beautiful copper color when new, which turns to a red, then light brown, dark brown, and finally black. Why is one coin dark and corroded while another, of the same date and variety, smooth and light brown in color? Two factors determine the color and condition of a copper coin, its composition and the environment in which it has existed.
Let's explore these two topics and see if we can discover anything that might tell us how our coppers color.
The composition of large cents is listed in the Red Book as 100% copper. In reality, probably none were. Slight impurities, inevitable considering the refining skills of the era, resulted in mostly copper planchets that contained different trace elements and compounds. Some of these trace elements cause the copper to color and/or corrode. Others make the copper harder, helping it resist wear and oxidation.
Copper is a fairly active element. In nature, copper is seldom found in a pure state, occurring most frequently as the compounds chalcocite (Cu2S) and Chalcopyrite ((CuFeS2). Note that both contain sulfur (S), an element that readily reacts with copper. Copper also combines with many other elements to form thousands of different compounds. Some elements are difficult to remove during the refining process and result in coppers that are - well, NOT entirely copper.
Collectors have often speculated about the purity of early copper coins. William Sheldon, in Penny Whimsy, speculates, "The copper used in the 1800 (and 1799) cents must have been exceptionally soft, for the coins are usually seen well worn, and they dent most easily...." (1) Sheldon's comment was based on his observations - most 1799's and a large number of 1800's DO come dark, worn, and marked. Another story suggests an exotic element, gold was present in the cents of 1814. This rumor probably began when it was noticed that mint state 1814's had a lighter, golden tinge to their color. While the story provides a little intrigue for students of early coppers, this golden tinge probably comes from environmental factors. No one has demonstrated that gold is present in 1814 large cents.
For years, collectors have known that sulfur darkens copper. What if large amounts of sulfur were present in all (ok, maybe most) of the planchets used to strike 1799 large cents? Or what about 1834 N-5's (another variety that often is found in wretched condition)? After all, those varieties usually come dark and corroded. Where these cents "doomed" by their composition to darken and corrode from the moment they were struck (or possibly even before)?
The composition of the copper used to make our early coins was dependent on at least two factors, where the copper was from and how it was transported and stored. Locating the source of the copper might explain certain impurities that are more prevalent in certain dates or varieties. And locating the source can help us understand some of the environmental factors the planchets faced in their trip to the mint.
Almost all the copper used to strike our early copper coins was imported. The first record of copper being mined in the United States is in 1709 at Simsbury, CT. This was the start of a small production of domestic copper, mined mostly in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. With insufficient domestic production, the coiners of colonial coppers imported tons of sheet copper from Great Britain, where the mines in Cornwall were producing about three-fourths of the world's copper output. Copper, in the quantities needed by the Mint, was scarce in America in the 1790's.
Even before coinage began, Federal officials were trying to obtain copper from abroad. Inquiries were made in Sweden and England. As early as 1789, negotiations were conducted with Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham, England, to strike coins for the new nation. Boulton, who was already striking tokens and coins for a number of customers, did not feel he could fill the coinage needs of the new American republic. For better or worse, America's coinage would be "home made."
Thus, the first copper coins struck at the Philadelphia mint were made from scrap copper, obtained locally. This copper was of unknown origin and of mixed quality, probably consisting of old pots and pans, old roofing material, and circulated colonial coppers.. This scrap copper had to be processed several times before it would be usable for striking coins. These processes included melting, refining and pouring the molten copper into molds. They included rolling the copper, which was time consuming and required using the mint rollers, which were in poor condition. Then planchets were cut. Finally, the edges had to be "upset" or raised, with a suitable design (vine and bars) or lettering inscribed around the edge.
Soon after production of copper cents and half cents began in 1793, the Mint officially contracted, through an intermediary, with Taylor and Baily of London for several thousand pounds of sheet copper. By purchasing the copper in sheets of the proper thickness, the mint would only have to punch blanks out of the sheets and then upset the edges. This order of sheet copper was received after copper coinage was completed for 1793. Thus, all 1793's were made from local scrap copper.
Three shipments of sheet copper were received from Taylor and Baily in 1794. But by 1795, the copper shortage at the mint had become acute. The Mint began buying more scrap copper locally and even purchased approximately 52,000 Talbot, Allum, and Lee (TAL) tokens from the New York firm. Most of these TAL tokens were cut down to make half cents. TAL undertype can be seen on many half cents of the late 18th century.
In October 1796, a shipment of over 10 tons of sheet copper and planchets was received from the Governor & Company, another English firm. These planchets, often called Coltman planchets (after the company contact, William Coltman) were of unsatisfactory quality. They were rough and many had to be scoured by hand before they were usable. The sheet copper also had to be rolled again, as it was too rough to be used for planchets.
In 1796, the mint finally contracted with Matthew Boulton for copper planchets. But even at this point in time, Boulton was unable to supply the copper. Finally, in August 1797, the mint received its first shipment from Boulton, almost 500,000 planchets. At about the same time, a second order was received from Governor & Company, this one for 400,000 planchets. Once again, the Coltman planchets were of such inferior quality, the mint never bought copper from Governor and Company again. From this point, the Mint purchased only planchets, all from Boulton. A million planchets were received in July 1798 and 2.6 million more in 1799. Another large shipment was received in the summer of 1800, this shipment including several kegs of half cent planchets. Until this time, half cent planchets were made using scrap copper, cut down spoiled large cents, and TAL tokens.
Boulton’s next shipment was not received until late 1801, due to copper shortages arising from the Napoleonic Wars. This was the last halt in planchet shipments until 1812, when the US and England went to war. By the end of 1814, the remaining planchets and some scrap copper were struck into large cents dated 1814. No more planchets were received for almost a year.
Copper coin production stopped. When Boulton began supplying the Mint with planchets again in late 1815, cent production resumed. Boulton continued to supply planchets to the Mint on a regular basis for the next twenty-one years, though some planchets were obtained from other suppliers. One of these suppliers, Belles and Harrold of Birmingham, England, supplied the Mint with several tons of planchets, beginning in 1816. Their last shipment was in 1833. By the early 1830's, domestic copper production had increased and the Taunton, MA firm of Crocker Brothers began petitioning the Mint for the planchet contracts. The first was awarded in 1832. By early 1838, Crocker Brothers was able to provide planchets for less than Boulton. At this time, the mint began ordering all its copper planchets from Crocker Brothers.
Even though Crocker Brothers was an American firm, most of their copper came from Peru. It was not until the Lake Superior mines in Upper Michigan started producing copper in 1844 that domestic copper was used in large quantities by the mint.
The origin of the copper in early coppers does affect the way these coins appear. Early coppers struck on Coltman planchets are typically dark with porous surfaces. Those struck using scrap copper often suffer from laminations and streaky toning. There were good planchets mixed in, so two coins, struck one after the other, could exhibit differences in their appearance due to their content and the environment they were in. After all, there are some nice Coltman coins out there!
Which brings us to a second factor, transportation and storage. All planchets and sheet copper ordered from abroad were shipped to the Mint aboard merchant ships, usually English ships. In many cases, particularly with the early Boulton shipments, some of these planchets were exposed to salt spray and bilge water, discoloring them and making their surfaces rough. Other planchets made the trip unaffected.
So, just how pure was the copper used to make large and half cents? What impurities were present? To answer a question like this, you need data about the composition of early coppers.
Unfortunately, no one has done a thorough analysis of the different elements found in early coppers. Only one limited study, published by George Tyson in a series of articles in Penny Wise in 1984, is known to me. Tyson analyzed the composition of large cents dated 1794, 1795, 1796, and 1802. He found that the coins ranged from 93 to 99% pure. The most common non-copper element he found was iron, which amounted to 3.5% of one coin's composition. Lead was also present in concentrations as high as 1.5%. The presence of these elements, which are easily removed during refining, indicate the mint was using inferior quality copper to strike these coins. Some other elements he found in small quantities included silver, sulfur, antimony, arsenic and bismuth. Each of these elements can cause reactions with copper over time. For example, iron, in the amounts present in these coins, accelerates the darkening of a copper coin. Arsenic, on the other hand, tends to toughen the surface metal and slow wear and corrosion. Sulfur, of course, darkens copper while silver lightens it and gives the coin a sheen. This is an area that deserves further study.
This data, while very tentative, shows that the copper used to strike our early coins was not pure. In some cases, it was very impure. Some of these impurities have affected how the coin has colored and worn. Impurities probably create the beautiful streaked "wood grain" toning prevalent on cents of the mid to late 1830's.
While elements in the planchets have affected the color and surfaces of our coppers, environmental factors have probably played a bigger role in changing the way our coins look.
Environmental factors affected the metal in our coppers, even before they were struck. Remember, copper is a very reactive element, particularly in the presence of moisture and heat. When the mint made its own planchets, the copper had to be melted, refined, poured into molds, and allowed to cool. The copper was then repeatedly rolled until it was a standardized thickness. Blanks were then punched out. The blanks were then "upset," raising the rim and inscribing a device on the edge. All these operations produced heat. Some oxidation undoubtedly occurred during this time.
The planchets purchased from England also suffered from environmental factors before even reaching the mint. In cities with a large industrial base, like Birmingham, heavy concentrations of sulfur, a by-product of using coal as the predominant fuel, were present in the air,. This sulfur undoubtedly reacted with some of the planchets. Then, the planchets were shipped by boat to Philadelphia. Some of the planchets, according to mint reports, suffered corrosion from exposure to salt spray and bilge water. While these planchets were supposedly cleaned before striking, it is unlikely that all the reactive elements were removed from the planchets.
When the coin was struck, heat was again produced. This could also start a chemical reaction, particularly if it was raining, the humidity was high, or the air was smoky. The struck coins were then poured into wooden casks, where they were stored and transported. The wood in these casks would have provided the elements needed for reaction with the copper coins. This reaction would start with the coins nearest the cask itself, toning exposed copper. Over time, this reaction would move toward the center of the cask. If the casks were stored in a humid environment, the process was accelerated.
Where the coppers went also influenced how they toned and wore. The mint distributed early coppers several different ways. Some were delivered directly to the Treasurer of the United States for further dispersal. Others were distributed to banks in the Philadelphia area (the Bank of the United States, the Bank of North America, and the Bank of Pennsylvania) or to Customs Houses along the Atlantic coast and the border with Canada. Some were paid out to mint employees (Adam Eckfeldt and Elias Boudinot in particular) who probably deposited the copper under their own names for coinage. Small businesses also placed orders directly with the mint for copper coins.
When the capitol was moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, the delivery pattern changed. The Treasury Secretary, now in Washington, used his local deputy, first Israel Whalon and later Tench Coxe, to receive and distribute coins. By 1803, all mint deliveries were to local banks, businesses, or the deputy Treasurer of the United States in Philadelphia. Individual orders also continued to be filled by the mint. In the late 1820's, John Saxton of Canton, OH received 1,000 half cents and 4,500 cents from the mint (2). And on May 11, 1832, 400,000 half cents were delivered to Washington Cilley of New York City (3). All these places are in typically humid climates.
This pattern of distribution continued until the mid-1830s, when Crocker Brothers, who were supplying planchets to the mint, became the exclusive distributors for American copper coins in the New England area (4). Coins destined for other areas were distributed as before.
Circulation, where most coins were found, has probably had the greatest effect on how our coppers look. Banging against other coins or hard objects produced nicks and scratches on the coin. Oil from people's hands and air-borne elements would start a chemical reaction. And some coppers were lost, buried, left out in the sun, dissolved in pickle brine (producing beautiful green pickles, and a poisonous by-product!),- or just plain mutilated
The area of circulation made a big difference in their color. Early coppers circulated primarily in a corridor from Richmond up through Philadelphia and from New York to Boston. Most circulated in the cities. This area is fairly humid and would have had fairly high sulfur content in the air, a prime situation to encourage toning and corrosion.
But some coppers went elsewhere. Treasure hunters in South Carolina find 1795 and 1796 large cents with some regularly. A middle date large cent variety, 1830 N11, has been nicknamed "the I-75 variety" because many examples of this elusive variety have been found within 200 miles (north and south) of Cincinnati, OH, along the route of Interstate Route 75 (5). Maybe the N11's were in a keg of 1830's delivered to Cincinnati. Perhaps they were part of a large payment at a later date. We may never know. But this occurred long ago. In the mean time, these coppers were dispersed (and sometimes widely dispersed) from the location where they were first delivered. These coins have been traveling for 160-220+ years, in all different directions and environments.
Few of our coppers were saved with any thought toward preservation. Virtually all were subjected to the rigors of circulation and/or poor storage. What is amazing is that a few have survived so well through the years. So, how did your copper get to be the way it is? Its metallic composition started the change, even before the coin was struck. The environment around the coin probably contributed more to its current look. In a sense, you can see the coin's history by looking at it surfaces.
Preserve your coppers by keeping them in a cool, dry, and dark place. But don't neglect looking at them to detect color changes! Looking at coppers is fun!
(1) Sheldon, William H., Penny Whimsy, New York, NY: Durst Publications Ltd., 1990, p 248.
(2) Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents 1793-1857, South Gate, CA., American Institute of Numismatic Research, 1983, p. 337.
(3) Julian, R.W., "British Copper and American Coinage," The Sentinel, Volume 48, No. 4, Winter 2000, p. 29.
(4) Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents 1793 - 1857, p. 3 10.
(5) Wright, John D., The Cent Book, Bloomington, MN: Litho Technical Services, 1992, p. 189.
Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States Half Cents 1793 - 1857, South Gate, CA. American Institute of Numismatic Research, 1983.
Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents 1793 - 1814, Edited by Mark R. Borckhardt. Wolfeboro, N-H: Bowers and Merena Galleries, 2000.
Julian, R.W., "British Copper and American Coinage," The Centinel, Volume 48, No. 4, Winter 2000, pp. 25-29.
Sheldon, William H., Penny Whimsy, New York, NY: Durst Publications Ltd., 1990.
Tyson, George, "Analysis Reveals Composition of S242 Cent," Penny Wise, Volume XVIII, 1984, p. 106.
Tyson, George, "Analysis of 1794-1796 Cents: the Mint Makes Do," Penny Wise, Volume XVIII, 1984, p. 156.
Williamson, Raymond H., "Copper for Early American Cents," Penny Wise, Volume XVIII, 1984, p. 99.
Wright, John D., The Cent Book, Bloomington, MN: Litho Technical Services, 1992.