The American Chain Cent of 1793 is one of the rarest and most valuable of all early United States coins. It was the first circulating coin officially produced by the United States Mint. This fact alone would make it highly desirable, but its fascinating backstory and interesting symbolic design add to the Chain Cent’s allure.
Technically the first one-cent coins struck by the United States Mint were produced in 1792. However, numismatists classify these issues as patterns, as they were produced in extremely limited quantities. The U.S. Mint experimented with two different designs for the one-cent coin in 1792, but neither was adopted for circulation.
Later, in 1793, the Mint adopted a final design for the one-cent coin. The obverse featured a female portrait of Liberty with flowing hair. The inscription “Liberty” was displayed at 12:00 while the date was inscribed below the portrait. This design was, if anything, quite sparse with relatively open design fields and minimal ornamentation.
The reverse features thirteen interlocking chains, meant to symbolize the unity of the thirteen states. The denomination “ONE CENT” is engraved within the circular chain link, along with the denomination 1/100. Since the dollar and decimal systems were both relatively new in the United States, the numerical fraction helped reinforce exactly how much one-cent was worth relative to the dollar.
While the Chain Cent’s design has been celebrated by numismatists, it was met with disapproval by the general public upon release. Some felt the portrait of Lady Liberty appeared to be in fright; she appeared to be startled. Even the reverse was panned by critics, as many felt the chains represented slavery instead of unity.
The Chain Cent design was extremely short-lived; it was produced for just several weeks before it was phased out in favor of a new design. It was replaced by the 1793 Wreath Cent, which was extremely similar in concept to the Chain Cent but with a somewhat more pleasing motif. Before the design change, a total of 36,103 Chain Cents were officially minted.
Today, virtually all Chain Cents are encountered in heavily worn and/or damaged condition. They are often seen with rough, corroded surfaces and negative eye appeal. Problem-free specimens are highly prized, as they represent the minority of all Chain Cents. Uncirculated pieces are especially rare; they routinely sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. A spectacular MS66 example realized an impressive $2.35 at auction in 2015.