• Section Contents
  • Washington Eagle Cents of 1791

    The Washington Eagle Cents of 1791: Introduction

    In the hopes of obtaining a contract from the U.S. government to produce copper coins the firm of W. and Alexander Walker of Birmingham England commissioned John Gregory Hancock to designed a copper cent. Hancock designed two different cents, each with a bust of George Washington on the obverse and an American eagle of the reverse. Hancock worked at Obadiah Westwood's mint in Birmingham, England, where the coppers were minted.

    The two coppers are know as the Large Eagle and the Small Eagle cents. The obverse of the Large Eagle variety displayed a bust left portrait of Washington with the legend "WASHINGTON PRESIDENT" and the date 1791. The reverse had a large American eagle with dropped wings holding a scroll in its beak containing the legend "UNUM E PLURIBUS." The shield displaed the thirteen vertical stripes (or pales) but did not have the usual horizontal lines above (known as the chief azure). In the talon to the left the eagle held an olive branch and in the talon to the right was a bundle of thirteen arrows. Above the eagle wass the legend "ONE CENT."

    The obverse of the Small Eagle variety was similar except that it did not include the date and there was a stop (or period) after "WASHINGTON ." The reverse depicted a smaller American eagle with raised wings. The shield on the eagle was the more common American shield with thirteen vertical stripes (pales) and, if one counts to the top of the points, thirteen horizontal stripes (the chief azure). In the talon to the left the eagle held an olive branch and in the talon to the right was a bundle of six arrows. Above was an arch of clouds spanning from one wing tip to the other with a field of eight stars. Above the clouds was the legend "ONE CENT" while below the eagle was the date 1791.

    The Walkers had a cask of these cents shipped to his American associate, the firm of Thomas Ketland and Son, in Philadelphia. They were to distribute the coins to cabinet officers, senators and congressmen in the hopes of securing a federal minting contract. It has been assumed the cask was a a normal size hundredweight barrel, which would accommodate 112 pounds or about 4,000 coppers. It has been further conjectured about 2,500 of the coppers were the Large Eagle variety and about 1,500 were Small Eagle cents. Although the coins were well made no contract was awarded. George Washington rejected the idea of having his portrait on coins as overly monarchical and he also rejected the notion of contract minting. His desire was to open a national mint to control coin production. Nevertheless, the some four thousand copper cents that had been sent over were put in circulation. Following this unplanned issue, no presidential portraits were found on government issued coins until the Lincoln penny of 1909.

    Some uniface die trials examples survive of the both the obverse (2) and reverse (4) of the Large Eagle variety and the obverse (1) and reverse (1) of the Small Eagle copper; Hancock also produced a Large Eagle patterns without a denomination. There is also an unusual mule combining a George III obverse and a Large American Eagle reverse. A single Small Eagle example is known with a lettered edge and two regular strike examples exist in brass. Later the obverse dies were used for several token issues, most notably the Washington Ship Halfpenny and the Washington Liverpoool Halfpenny.

    Additionally, some undenominated large eagle patterns exist dated 1792. It is thought they were produced before word was received in Birmingham that a Washington portrait coin was unacceptable. On the reverse of these patterns the space used for the denomination "ONE CENT" was replaced with an arch of thirteen stars, thus the coins are undenominated. About a half dozen examples exist in copper (Baker 20), about the same number in silver (Baker 21) and one in gold (Baker 20a). They are frequently referred to as a cent, half dollar and ten dollar piece, although several now suspect the unique gold example was a pocket piece owned by George Washington rather than a pattern for a gold ten dollar coin (this includes the current owner of the piece, Eric Newman). There is also a variety of this reverse joined with the undated BORN VIRGINIA obverse (Baker 22; Fuld WA.1792.7, Breen 1236), of which three examples are known. Unfortunately in the Rulau and Fuld revision of Baker the description and illustration of Baker 22 are incorrect.


    See Breen, pp. 137-139; and his "Original 1791 Cents Story" a serial issue in the Numismatic Weekly News as follows: (October 23, 1973) 8, 10, 49; (November 6, 1973) 20, 22; (November 13, 1973) 22, 44; (November 20, 1973) 20, 46; (November 27, 1973) 22, 32 and (December 4, 1973) 24, 48; the revision of W.S. Baker's 1885 catalog by Russell Rulau and George Fuld, Medallic Portraits of Washington ,  Iola, WI: Krause, 1985, pp. 30-31 and George Fuld, "Coinage Featuring George Washington,"in Coinage of the Confederation Period,  ed. by Philip L. Mossman, Coinage of the Americas Conference, Proceedings No. 11, held at the American Numismatic Society, October 28, 1995, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1996, pp. 165-259 on pp. 174-182 where the various types are listed from WA.1791.1 through WA.1791.2.Br. and the several patterns and unifaced trial strikes are listed as WA.1791.P1 through WA.1791.P10; for an excellect discussion of the undenominated 1792 examples see pp.192-197.

    ^ ->
    Section Contents Washington Eagle Cents of 1791

    For viewing tips and information on optimal computer settings click here.
    For our copyright statement click here.

    For questions or comments contact Special Collections by:
    , telephone: (574) 631-0290, or mail:
    Department of Special Collections, 102 Hesburgh Library,
    University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556