By Steve Carr
A total of 156,288,744 large cents were struck and issued between 1793 and 1857, or about the monthly output of cents today. A miniscule number of half cents, only 7,865,226, were struck and issued during these years.
Today, large cents and half cents are available at most coin shops and shows. While there is merit to the thought that you see far fewer coppers today as compared to ten years ago, the fact remains that early American coppers are available to collectors. But how many exist? And what happened to all the others?
First, let’s see what happened to these coppers. The same factors that wear out our current coinage were also at work when the early coppers circulated. Wear and tear naturally occurred on them. An unknown number just wore out, passing from hand to hand. In addition, many large and half cents were simply lost, misplaced or dropped. Some of these coppers are found in the ground today, while others turn up in old desks and dressers.
Other cents were exported, never to return to the United States. Many of these coins went to Canada, with some returning years later. Others went to South America. Again, no total number of large cents exported is available, but it is known that the Venezuelan government ordered a million cents from the Mint in 1835.
It is impossible to estimate the number of early coppers lost this way. With virtually no data available for these type losses, perhaps no one can.
Other losses of early coppers can be documented, at least for large cents. Melting is one such loss. One source, the United States Mint, recorded melting a total of 38,386,687 large cents from 1857 until 1953, when separate records for large cent redemptions were stopped.
Of these 38 million large cents, 84,781 were redeemed and melted by the mint after 1930! The last recorded redemption was for 290 large cents in 1953.
Redeeming large cents at the Mint began when the new flying eagle cents were offered to the public, in exchange for old coppers or Spanish silver, in February 1857. Thousands of large cents returned to the Mint that first day and large numbers were redeemed until the start of the Civil War.
Commercial melting of early coppers also occurred. When the intrinsic value of copper exceeded one cent, private melting occurred. Records of private melts are virtually non-existent, but research done by Craig Sholley estimates the number of cents melted at several different times. He estimates that 10-12 million were melted between 1800 and 1820 and a further 32.5 million during the Civil War.
That is 81 – 83 million large cents melted by the Mint and privately, or more than half the total mintage! And this doesn’t take into account those lost.
So, how many early American coppers still exist? The number of large and half cents in existence today can not be determined exactly, just as we can not determine exactly how many were melted or lost. It is also impossible to see and count all the large cents that are known. Duplications would occur and come coppers would be missed.
Thus, we must rely on estimates. These estimates are always based on data from a small sample that is extrapolated to cover the entire series of large and half cents. R.H. Williamson was one of the first to present an estimate on the number of surviving early American large cents. In the July 1949 issue of The Numismatist. Williamson suggested that several million large cents still existed (in 1949) in all conditions. He based his estimate on the number of cents he had seen.
In the early 1950s, William Sheldon and Walter Breen intensely studied the cents of 1794 and concluded that 3% still survived. Sheldon and Breen did not suggest their findings applied to all other dates of large cents, but if we were to assume that 3% of the mintage survived for all years, that would mean there were 4.7 million large cents existent.
In the first issue (September 1967) of Penny Wise, the journal of the Early American Coppers club, Warren Lapp “guesstimated” the number of surviving large cents at between 767,000 and 1.57 million, much lower than earlier estimates. Lapp used rarity ratings and data from random purchases by W.E. Johnson, a copper dealer, to reach his conclusions.
More recent estimates have used data accumulated from a large number of collections, long kept records, and eBay. In the late 1990’s, Red Henry studied the survivorship of cents dated 1800 – 1807. His conclusions, published in Penny Wise, suggested that cents from this era survived at a rate of about 1%. If extrapolated to the entire large cent series, this would mean about 1.5 million survivors.
Several studies of survivors were published by Ron Manley in Penny Wise in 2001. These included estimates that less than 1% of middle date cents and slightly more than 1% of late date cents had survived. After further study, Manley suggests that only about 570,000 large cents exist today, or about 1/3 of 1% of all those minted!
Bill Eckberg, has been studying half cent survivors. His research, published in Penny Wise in 2000 and 2001, estimates that only 140,000 half cents survive, or a little less than 2% of the total mintage.
Early American coppers were struck to promote commerce in our young nation. They did this admirably, serving as a medium of commerce, as a source of metal, and even as heirlooms and collectibles. Most were melted or lost, but a few survived. When you look at your next early copper, think about what it has been through and marvel at the fact it survived.