What’s In a Number? It’s All About the History

The design for the controversial 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent didn’t last long. Only 36,103 were struck before the Mint ran out of planchets.

By Gerald Tebben

In U.S. coin collecting, the number 15—in the words of the late Rodney Dangerfield—can’t get no respect.

It started strong in our coinage history but lacked the staying power of 13. Thirteen, a traditionally unlucky number, gained immense importance in 1776 when 13 colonies declared themselves independent of Great Britain.

For a brief period in the history of American coinage, though, 15 was the number to be reckoned with. On June 1, 1792, just as the United States Mint was getting started, Kentucky joined the Union as the 15th state. It remained the newest state until June 1, 1796, when Tennessee pushed the frontier farther west.

The early Mint recognized the nation’s 15th state on several coins, but none more famously than the controversial 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent. Minted from March 1 through March 12, 1793, the coin features a somewhat unflattering bust of Liberty on the obverse and a circle of chain on the back. While most collectors, even some who own the scarce piece, think there are 13 links on that chain, there are not. The chain, meant to symbolize unity and strength, has 15 links; one for each state in the Union on the day the coin was struck.

The designs didn’t last long. Only 36,103 were struck before the Mint ran out of planchets. A few days after the coins were struck, a Philadelphia newspaper, “The Mail,” or “Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser,” complained that the chain was “a bad omen for liberty.”

When cent coinage resumed April 9, the chain was nowhere to be found, replaced by a wreath, a device that would remain on the reverse of the nation’s cents for the next 116 years. The obverse was modified as well, with a new Flowing Hair Liberty portrait introduced.

While most collectors think there are 13 links on the chain of the 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain cent, there are not. The chain, meant to symbolize unity and strength, has 15 links; one for each state in the Union on the day the coin was struck

The number 15 did make a brief return to the cent in 1817 when a diesinker lost count when punching in stars on the obverse of the Coronet cent. He placed 15 stars around Liberty’s head instead of the desired 13. The blundered variety commands a small premium over 13-Star coins. In good condition, the 1817 Coronet, 13 Stars cent lists for $35 in Coin Valueswhile the 1817 Coronet, 15 Stars cent is valued at $65.

The first silver half-dime, dime, quarter-dollar, half-dollar and dollar—and gold $5 half-eagle and $10 eagle—had 15 stars. A 16th star was added to the denominations in 1796 for Tennessee.

Ohio, the 17th state, would not get its star for nearly two centuries. In 1798, the Mint’s director Elias Boudinot realized that he didn’t have the space, especially on the tiny silver 5-cent half-dime, to add another star each time a new state joined the union, so he dropped the number of stars to 13.

Ohio, which became the 17th state in 1803, got its star in 2000. The Sacagawea dollar has 17 stars on the reverse, one for each state in the union when Lewis and Clark began their famous journey of discovery. No 15-star gold $2.50 quarter-eagles were struck. The denomination first appeared in 1796. While there is no documentation to support the theory, many collectors believe the first quarter-eagles were struck to honor the admission of Tennessee to the Union.

The first 963 of the 1796 Capped Bust quarter-eagles are unlike any coin the Mint had produced before.

The obverse shows Miss Liberty, the word “liberty” and the date. The visual impact of the starless obverse is stunning, emphasizing the unity of purpose of the 16 states that now comprised the nation. The reverse of the coin shows 16 stars above the eagle’s head.

Only one coin issued for circulation since the blundered 1817 Coronet cent has 15 stars: the Morgan dollar. The coin has 13 stars on the obverse and two on the reverse, separating one dollar from the rest of the legend.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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