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Choice and Rare 1799 Set - 1799 Early Gold Set
1799 Large Cent - 1799 Silver Dollar - 1799/8 Silver Dollar - 1799 Half Eagle - 1799 Eagle

S - 1799 Large Cent
S - 1799 Silver Dollar
S - 1799/8 Silver Dollar
S - 1799 Half Eagle Large Stars
S - 1799 Eagle

The Early Mint: Philadelphia, the nation’s most populous city, suffered numerous epidemics of yellow fever. In 1793, 5,000 died from the disease, roughly one-tenth of the population. At the time, doctors did not know the cause of the disease or a satisfactory treatment. It began with 2,000 immigrants who fled the slave revolution in Saint-Dominique, a French colony on the island of Hispaniola. It is likely that refugees and ships carried the yellow fever virus and mosquitoes that transported it. The mosquitoes bred in standing water, and the medical community did not understand their role in the transmission of the disease. From August to October the “sickly season” lasted from 1793 to 1799. These epidemics led to the closing of the Mint each year, which created havoc with the proper sequencing and storing of coinage dies.

The early Mint was governed by the Coinage Act of April 2, 1792. This act covered the employees, their duties, and procedures to be followed at the Mint. A summary of its provisions is useful to understand some of the limitations that our early coiners faced.

The Act of April 2, 1792 was the first comprehensive law that related to coinage and the Mint. It provide for a location, then Philadelphia the seat of the government; officers including a director, assayer, coiner, treasurer, and engraver; authorized employment of others; specified duties of each; specified an oath to faithfully and diligently perform duties; required the assayer, chief coiner, and treasurer post a bond of ten thousand dollars; specified salaries; required quarterly and annual reports to Congress; provided for the construction of buildings; authorized the denominations and their specifications; specified that the obverse designs shows an impression “emblematic of liberty” and that the word LIBERTY be included with the year. The reverse of silver and gold coins was to have a representation of an eagle and the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Copper coins were required to have the denomination expressed. The law went on to provide for bi-metallism at a ratio of fifteen to one. It further proscribed the fineness of silver and gold to be used along with the percentage of copper. It allowed for citizens to present gold and silver bullion for coining with a fee going to the Mint. All deposits had to be coined in the order they were submitted, resulting in unnecessary expense for the Mint. Gold and silver was made legal tender for all debts, but it left up to the citizenry the job of weighing and calculating the value of every coin received. Since copper was not legal tender, it could be refused by banks, shops and individuals. The Mint’s officers were charged with preserving the legal weights and standards, and the Act provided for an annual assay of the coinage; the death penalty was possible for anyone who debased or embezzled coinage or bullion; and the Act made it a misdemeanor to pay or receive payment in copper except those pieces of the United States.

Because of the bond provision of the act, precious metals could not be coined until 1794, when the amount of the bond was reduced. This explains why our first coinage was composed of copper cents and half cents. By 1799, some of the problems of the early Mint were ameliorated, but many persisted. The Mint building, for example, was three stories high. Vaults were in the basement and the deposit and weighing rooms were on the first floor. The second floor had various offices. However, the assay office and furnace were on the top floor. This arrangement caused the spread of fumes from nitric acid, used for parting precious metals, throughout the building. A dark, winding stairway connected the floors, where a tallow lamp burned all day. A small frame house was nearby on the Mint’s property. It contained a horse mill for driving the rolling machines. On the first floor were the rolling and drawing machines. The upper level had the smelting furnace. An overhead bridge connected the two houses. Two other small buildings contained press rooms for striking silver and gold coins. Another was used for striking copper. The upper level contained shops where machinery was repaired and made. A large furnace was added in 1794 at the north end of Sixth Street.

The Mint had many serious problems. Although originally constructed for a steam engine, power came from men and horses, and production was sporadic. It was difficult to obtain good steel for dies. After the initial relief was made on a hub, the rest of the design was added individually. These elements were the stars, the numerals, the letters, and the wreath. Individual leaves and berries were often placed in the die with hand punches, which accounts for many of the numerous varieties of our early coinage.

Since there was no fund to purchase bullion, the output of the Mint depended, except for copper coinage, on the size of bullion deposits. The Mint received ingots, nuggets, grains, foreign coins, jewelry, and plate. A typical deposit had to be refined and assayed. Difficulty existed in measuring high temperatures and regulating the assay furnace. An incorrect temperature could result in a loss of the precious metal being assayed. Parting used nitric acid to dissolve the sliver and leave the gold intact. When the assay was completed, the treasurer gave the depositor a receipt for the value of the deposit. Each separate deposit was stamped and delivered for smelting. Precious metals were weighed in British pennyweights and grains, which made for a very cumbersome computation. Fineness was expressed in carats as in the British system.

If a deposit was too pure, the refiner or melter added a quantity of alloy. If it was inferior, it was melted and alloy was removed. Once it was the correct proportion for coinage, it was cast into rectangular ingots about a foot long. These were individually assayed and delivered to the chief coiner for rolling and punching into blanks. These were finally struck into coins.

After the ingots were made, they were rolled into sheets of metal. Because of the crudeness of the early rollers, the gold and silver strips had to be placed in a drawing machine to make them more uniform. After the strips were washed, they were annealed and cut lengthwise. These narrower strips were then cut into planchets. By 1795 there were three planchet cutters at the Mint. Together they could punch out between fifteen to eighteen thousand planchets daily.

After being cut, they were weighed and adjusted. The heavy ones were adjusted with one or two strokes of a file across its face. The lighter ones were sent to the furnace to begin again. These adjustment marks are often seen on examples of our early coinage. They were then taken to a milling machine where a lettering or reeding device impressed the edge. From there they were annealed and taken to the coining press room. The press worked by a screw that was similar to the one that cut out the planchets. The obverse die replaced the cutting cylinder. In 1793 Adam Eckfeldt invented a machine to automatically feed and eject the planchets.
The early Mint operated with this relatively primitive equipment and procedures until a steam engine was installed in June 1816. The coins contained in this set were all made under the laws that governed at the time and using early procedures and equipment.

1799 Large Cent

1799 Large Cent - The 1799 cent, designed by Robert Scot, shows Liberty in profile facing right with the date below. Above her head is the word LIBERTY. Her hair is tied back with a ribbon, and it flows down her neck and behind her shoulders. The bust is strangely draped for a classical design, which was Scot’s goal. Dentils are at the periphery of both sides of the coin. The reverse shows a wreath of two olive branches tied with a ribbon on the bottom.

Enclosed in the wreath is the denomination, ONE CENT, written on two lines. At the bottom of the wreath is the fraction 1/100. Encircling the wreath is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. There is edge lettering that says ONE HUNDRED FOR A DOLLAR, which is visible in the new NGC holder.

In July 1796 there was a change made from Liberty Caps to Draped Busts. Scot, the Engraver, made a new die copying Gilbert Stuart’s drawing that was previously used for the Draped Bust silver coins. His assistant, Adam Eckfeldt, made a punch to make nineteen obverses with this date. Other dies were made with the 179 already in and the final number available to be used for 1797, 1798, and 1799.

There were several reasons that caused the cents of these early years to be of lesser overall quality. Mint work had to be suspended from mid-summer to late in the fall because of the annual yellow fever epidemic. Each winter the old stored dies were put back into service. Often they were rusted and chipped, and these imperfections showed on the coins they produced. A die chip is seen on the current coin. Planchets were imported from England because the local manufacturing companies were not able to produce ones of high quality.

Mint Director Boudinot gave Boulton & Watt, a British firm, his planchet orders because the locally produced planchets were more expensive and inferior. However, the ones used in 1799 came from Coltman Brothers, an American company. Mint records call them “black copper” because they were dark and rapidly deteriorated.

In addition to inferior materials to work with, Mint personnel also lived with the anxiety that their jobs would end because of the possible abolition of the Mint as a United States’ enterprise. Inexplicably, later die steel improved which enabled the dies to last longer. Hence more quality pieces are known after 1801.

All 1799 Large Cents are rare and in demand by date collectors and investors. The pictured coin is an S-189 variety. It is identified by a perfect date with 179 evenly spaced but the 9s closer together. The second 9 is higher and heavier. LIBERTY is in its normal position with evenly spaced letters close to each other. On the reverse, the E of CENT is recut at the crossbar. It joins the upper serif of the E. There is also a die chip between the E of ONE and the T of CENT.

1799 Silver Dollar

1799 Silver Dollar - The 1799 dollar was also designed by Robert Scot. The obverse shows a draped bust of Liberty in profile facing right. Above is LIBERTY, and below is the date. Liberty’s hair is tied in the back with a ribbon and also flows down over her right shoulder. Seven six-pointed stars are to the left and six are to the right. The heraldic eagle reverse shows the eagle with up stretched wings and a Union shield on its breast. A banner inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM curls across the left wing and under the right. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, interrupted by the wing tips, is in an arc near the periphery. Thirteen stars are above the eagle’s head under the clouds in an arc pattern. Dentils are near the edge on both sides of the coin. The edge is lettered HUNDRED CENTS ONEDOLLAR OR UNIT with ornamentation between the words.

Some researchers feel that Gilbert Stuart, the famous portrait artist, was hired by Mint Director Henry DeSaussure to create the obverse design. It is said to be based on a drawing of Mrs. William Bingham, the former Ann Willing. Evidently John Eckstein, an assistant to Scot, made the plaster models poorly, which might explain why Stuart’s family refused to acknowledge his role in the coinage design. Another theory is that the design is based on a portrait of Martha Washington. In any case, the Draped Bust dollar portrait was and is considered one of the finest made. It remained in use until the end of circulating dollar coinage in 1803 and was also used on other denominations from the half-cent to the half dollar.

The reverse of the 1799 Draped Bust dollar was first used by Robert Scot on the 1796 gold quarter eagle. It is an adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States of America; however, Scot reversed the arrows and olive branch. On the coin the eagle holds the arrows in its right talon, the opposite of the placement on the Great Seal. Perhaps the placement of the arrows was a warning to France, who was seizing American ships that were trading with Britain and to other world powers to be respectful of the sovereignty of the United States.

Full details are rarely seen on the dollars of 1798 to 1804. Weakness is often seen on the obverse on centers of the stars, the highest point of the hair, and the lines of the drapery. On the reverse the weak parts are often the shield, the feathers, the stars and the clouds. Dentils are often weak, and adjustment marks are frequently found on either side. Overweight coins were often adjusted by filing one side or the other. This adjustment process took place both before and after striking.

In addition to the overdates, there are many varieties of the 1799 dollar. These include an Irregular Date with a 15-Star Reverse, an Irregular Date with a 13-Star Reverse, a Normal Date, and an 8 Stars Left, 5 Stars Right. Both NGC and PCGS recognize 19 die varieties for the year exclusive of the overdates.

The pictured coin is a BB-163, one of the 7X6 obverse stars varieties. It is identified by Star 1 being small and thin. Star 8 is the closest to LIBERTY and slightly closer than Star 7. Star 1 is further from the curl than Star 13 is from the bust. On the reverse, the leaf points between the left corner and left side of the I in AMERICA. The point of Star 12 enters the eagle’s mouth, and touches the lower part of its beak. The lower point of the same star points to the left upright of the U in PLURIBUS. The far right edge of A in STATES is over Cloud 3. In their combined population reports, PCGS and NGC have certified 43 BB-163 dollars combined in all grades.

1799/8 Silver Dollar

1799/8 Silver Dollar - The 1799 overdate dollar has the last 9 punched over the previous 8. It is the only overdate of the year. The last 9 is almost touching the bust, and the stars are close together. The letters of LIBERTY are widely spaced, and there are die flaws under ERTY.

This obverse was combined with three reverse dies. The first had 15 stars on the reverse. The remains of the two stars are hidden under clouds 1 and 8, which have been enlarged to hide the stars. However, their tips are seen peeking through at the bottom. Evidently the engraver saw he had made too many stars and enlarged the clouds to hide his mistake.

In so doing, he left five stars in the first row instead of the normal six so that the incorrect six in the second row would not have to be corrected. The normal arrangement is 6-5-2. This die, before it was corrected was 7-6-2, and after it was corrected it was 5-6-2.

This overdate is listed as BB-141. In total 228 15 Star Reverse overdates have been certified by PCGS and 35 by NGC. There are two 13 Star reverses. One has a star just touching the point of the eagle’s beak (BB-142). The other has the star touching the lower part of the eagle’s beak and just entering its mouth (BB-143). PCGS has certified 143 13 Star Reverse overdates and NGC has certified 30. The pictured coin is a 13 Star Reverse BB-143 example.

1799 Half Eagle

1799 Half Eagle - The 1799 half eagle was also designed by Robert Scot. The obverse design shows Liberty facing right. Below her is the date which is off center to the left. Between the date and the word LIBERTY on the left side of the coin are eight stars. Five stars follow LIBERTY down to the bust. Liberty wears a large, soft cap. Her hair flows down and also shows on her forehead. The design was probably taken from a Roman engraving of a Greek goddess. Liberty’s cap was certainly not a Phrygian or liberty cap. The liberty cap, emblematic of freedom, was worn by freed slaves and freed gladiators in Roman times. It was a close fitting cap used to cover a shorn head, which was one of the way slaves were identified. The oversized cap worn by Liberty has been called a turban, and the design has been called the Turban Head because of it.

The reverse shows a heraldic eagle. However, as he did on the Silver dollar, Scot mixed up the positions of the arrows and olive branch. The arrows held in the wrong claw signify defiant militarism. Either Scot made an error copying the image of the Great Seal, or he deliberately changed the symbolism. Perhaps the design was a warning to France, with whom the United States was engaged in an undeclared naval war, and others to be mindful of the new country’s sovereignty. In the field above the eagle are thirteen stars and above them, seven clouds. A banner from wing to wing has the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.

The early half eagle coins have no denomination because gold was valued by its weight and fineness as was the European coinage of the time. As seen on contemporary Large Cents, dentils are at the edge of both the obverse and reverse of these coins.

Thomas Jefferson chose Robert Scot to be the first Chief Engraver of the United States Mint on November 23, 1793. Scot was born in 1744 in Edinburgh, Scotland or England. (Documentary evidence is lacking as to where he was born.) He was trained as a watchmaker in England and learned engraving afterwards. He moved to the United States in 1777, where he worked as an engraver of plates, bills of exchange, and office scales. During the Revolution, he was an engraver of paper money. In 1780 he was made the State Engraver of Virginia. He moved to Philadelphia the next year. He was appointed Chief Engraver of the United States Mint on November 23, 1793 by David Rittenhouse, Mint Director. His salary in 1795 was 1,200 per year.

The Mint Director received only $800 dollars per year more. Scot’s ability to make dies was limited, and he was advanced in years with failing eyesight. His work was somewhat less than that done in Europe at the time, and Scot was criticized for its poor quality. He was responsible for designs of most of America’s first coins. These include the Flowing Hair and the Draped Bust motifs used on the early silver coins, and the gold quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle. Scot also designed the 1794-1797 half-cent, the 1800-1808 draped bust half-cent, and the Thomas Jefferson Indian Peace Medal. Scot died on November 1, 1823 and was succeeded by William Kneass as Chief Engraver.

The 1799 half eagle had a mintage of 7,451, which includes both Large and Small Reverse Stars varieties. The pictured coin is the Large Stars variety. In their combined population reports, PCGS and NGC have certified 41 Large Stars and 60 Small Stars 1799 half eagles in all grades.

1799 Eagle

1799 Eagle - The design of Scot’s 1799 Eagle is similar to his half eagle. For the obverse he used the matronly bust of Liberty facing right. She wears a large, soft cap high on her head. Her hair puffs out from under it and falls to her shoulder. One heavy strand is wound around the hat, giving a turban-like appearance. LIBERTY is at the upper right with eight six-pointed stars to the left and five to the right. The date is below the truncation. The reverse shows a large heraldic eagle as its main device.

The eagle holds in its right talon a bundle of arrows and an olive branch in its left. Across the right wing and neck is a ribbon that is inscribed with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. A galaxy of stars is above the eagle’s head with clouds above the stars. The whole is partially enclosed with the required inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Dentils surround the coin on both sides, and the edge is reeded.

Much has been made of Liberty’s cap being a Phrygian cap. However, a true Phrygian or liberty cap was a close fitting cap worn by freed slaves. It was emblematic of freedom because the heads of slaves and gladiators were usually shorn. Certainly the cap Liberty wears in the eagle is not such a cap; however, it is reminiscent of caps worn by fashionable ladies of the times.

The use of the heraldry on the reverse has been questioned. Breen suggests that it was either a blunder or a “piece of stupid saber-rattling bravado” because the arrows are in the war-like eagle’s dexter claw. On The Great Seal of the United States, Scot’s source, the arrows are in the eagle’s sinister claw.

However, Breen fails to recognize that the United States was engaged with France in an undeclared naval war (The Franco-American War, also called the Quasi-War, took place from 1798 to 1800.) It was important for the United States to assert its sovereignty, and this war may have been the reason for the change in symbolism.

Neither the half eagle nor the eagles of 1799 have a denomination on the coin. Gold coins were valued by their weight and fineness as they were in Europe; consequently, the denomination was actually irrelevant.

The 1799 eagle had a mintage of 37,449, which includes both the Small and Large Obverse Stars varieties. The pictured coin is the Large Stars variety. In their combined population reports, PCGS and NGC have certified 472 Large Stars and 169 Small Stars 1799 eagles in all grades.


Choice and Rare 1799 Set - 1799 Large Cent - 1799 Silver Dollar - 1799 Half Eagle - 1799 Eagle

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