During the 1780s, the currency system in the newly-founded United States was, to put it simply, a mess. The economy was still reeling from the inflationary collapse of the Continental Dollar. There was very little specie (gold or silver coinage) in circulation, and even copper coins were hoarded. Counterfeit coppers and underweight coppers often served as substitutes in commerce. The economy suffered greatly from this lack of circulating coinage.
Under the Articles of Confederation, both Congress and each of the states were authorized to strike coinage. Beginning in 1785, some states (and even Vermont, which was not yet a state) contracted to have copper coins produced to relieve the lack of circulating coinage. Various private actors also took the initiative of producing their own coppers in the hopes of winning a contract to produce more official coins.
Recognizing the need for circulating currency, Congress passed a resolution in April 1787 authorizing the contract coining of a copper coin. At this time, the Spanish milled dollar was a common unit of account (it remained legal tender in the US until 1857), and the value of the new coin was set at one cent (one-hundredth of the Spanish dollar). The coin weighed about the same as an English halfpenny, a common late-colonial copper coin.
The design is copied heavily from Benjamin Franklin’s 1776 currency designs: both his paper “fractional” currency notes, which circulated widely, and his one dollar pattern coin design, of which only a few were produced. The obverse design shows a sundial with the sun itself shining overhead. The Latin word fugio, meaning, “I fly,” is inscribed along the edge between the sun and the ground, making a rebus with the sundial (“time flies”). The coin thus became known as the “Fugio cent.” A similar admonishment, “mind your business,” is inscribed at the base of the sundial. These inscriptions testify to the industrious character of early America. The reverse design shows a chain of thirteen links, each representing a state. The motto in the center, “we are one,” was later replaced on US coinage with the now-familiar Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum, though it has the same essential meaning. The dies were made by hand and there are dozens of variations due to the various idiosyncrasies of each die.
The Congressional contract was awarded to James Jarvis, who had purchased an operation already producing copper coins in Connecticut. Jarvis bribed his way into the lucrative contract, under which he was to produce 300 tons equivalent in copper coins (about $34m worth). Congress advanced him about 30 tons of copper on credit with the condition that he was to pay for it using profits from the coinage operation. Jarvis left for Europe in search of additional copper supplies, leaving his father-in-law, Samuel Broome, in charge of the operation. Instead of producing Fugio cents, Broome continued producing the lighter (and thus more profitable) Connecticut coppers with the copper supplied by Congress. He produced less than 400,000 Fugio cents, which were delivered in May 1788. With no payment for the copper by the end of the summer, Congress cancelled the contract, and Broome fled to join Jarvis in France (perhaps giving an additional, more ironic meaning to the Fugio cent’s name). This experience of dealing with a unsavory private coiner was influential on Congress’ decision to establish its own mint a few years later.
Congress quickly sold off the Fugio cents, which did not circulate widely. The Bank of New York acquired a keg of them in 1788; these remained in a vault until being rediscovered in 1856, and were subsequently forgotten again until the 1920s, when they attracted more numismatic interest. Today, Fugio cents are widely collected, with higher grade examples selling for thousands of dollars.