Copper coins have been mainstays of American commerce since the 18th century—and continue to be encountered on a daily basis. From 1793 to 1857, the most frequently used U.S. copper coin was the Large Cent. Unlike the one-cent coins of today, the Large Cent was between the Quarter Dollar and Half Dollar in size. In the 18th and 19th centuries Americans believed that a coin’s intrinsic or bullion value should closely parallel its face value. Therefore, to ensure that the one-cent coin contained approximately one cent’s worth of metal, the Large Cent was rather hefty in size.
The first Large Cent issued was the Chain Cent, one of the most famous and desirable of all U.S. coins. It features 13 interlocking links on the reverse, symbolizing the bonds of unity between the 13 colonies. Chain Cents are quite scarce and especially so in Uncirculated. A stunning Gem Uncirculated MS 65 example sold for well in excess of $1 million within the past few years.
Following the Chain Cent was the Flowing Hair design of 1793-1796. This short-lived series contains many scarce die varieties, including the 1793 Strawberry Leaf Cent and 1794 Starred Reverse Cent. In both instances, extremely minor differences in design can make a dramatic difference in value. An ordinary 1794 Cent is worth just a few thousand dollars in average circulated condition, but if tiny stars are visible between the dentils, the coin is worth more like $40k or more.
The Large Cent saw yet another redesign in 1796 as the Draped Bust motif was unveiled. This format is similar in appearance to the Draped Bust silver denominations. It later gave way to the Classic Head motif of 1808-1814, and then followed by the Coronet Head design of 1816-1839. Like the earlier Large Cent series, these are also widely collected by die variety. Numerous standard reference books have been published differentiating between the various die varieties and estimating their rarity levels.
The final iteration of the Large Cent was issued from 1839-1857. This format, known as the Braided Hair design, is by far the most common and easiest to find. Circulated examples can be bought for less than $100 per coin and even low-end Mint State specimens are available for less than $500 each. Even a few coins with original copper red coloration still exist.
The Large Cent was finally phased out in 1857 in favor of the smaller Flying Eagle Cent, which is the same size as today’s pennies. Cost cutting largely motivated the move; the U.S. Mint switched from a larger and more expensive copper coin to a smaller and cheaper alloy. Almost immediately after the Large Cent was discontinued, it became popular as a collectible and keepsake. Some argue that the Large Cent’s demise actually spurred the beginning of American coin collecting.