Without a doubt, the 1793 Chain Cent is amongst most famous and shortest-lived issues of American coinage ever produced. Struck during the first year of regular coinage production at the United States Mint in Philadelphia, its design was criticized in the year of issue, but has come to be cherished by modern collectors. While circulating examples of this historic rarity are available at more accessible price levels, the finest known example recently sold at auction for more than $1.3 million.
All Chain Cents were struck during the early months of 1793, from late February (one source list Washington’s Birthday as a date on which the first coins might have been struck) until mid-March 1793. A reasonable number of coins were produced during this period before production was halted due to a shortage of copper. This was a problem which would haunt the early United States Mint in Philadelphia for many years to come, however, for the time being the United States had its first coinage of cents.
The Chain Cent was supposedly designed by Henry Voigt although facts are scarce. As mandated by law, a visual representation of Liberty was portrayed on the obverse. The reverse featured a chain of fifteen links, representing each of the states in the Union at the time. The chain had been intended to indicate the strength of the Union, however some members of the public drew other connotations. Even in the late 18th century slavery was an issue in the United States, and the reverse design served as an unintended reminder of this. The representation of Liberty on the obverse was also criticized for its execution and her demeanor.
While production was halted because of the copper shortage, a new design was prepared and would be introduced when production resumed. Despite its brief run, the Chain Cent holds an important place in the history of American numismatics and continues to captivate collectors.