During the Confederation era there was a real need for small change copper coins since much of the colonial era copper coinage had been used to make military products during the Revolutionary War. Authorized coppers were minted in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and the Republic of Vermont as well as by the Federal Government (the Fugio cent); there were also several "limited edition" patterns and some private issues (like the Nova Eborac coppers) as well as the inevitable counterfeiting. In addition to all these products some individuals chose to go into the business of producing illegal British halfpence, sometimes known as "Tory coppers." A few operations were full scale mints, as at Machin's Mills, where illegal halfpence were struck on presses to supplement the income the mint received from legal contracts, while other operations were smaller part time family enterprises where individuals simply cast base metal halfpence using sand molds. Since British law was not applicable in the United States these American made halfpence were not technically counterfeits but rather imitations. However, they were illegal in that their production was not authorized by a governmental authority; according to the Articles of Confederation only the states and the federal government had the right to issue coinage.
These surreptitious minters produced struck halfpence as light in weight as possible. A regal British halfpence weighed about 150-155 grains, but the imitations averaged only about 110-115 grains, or some 40 grains underweight, thus more coins could be produced per pound of copper. This yielded a substantial profit, as the copper in a full weight regal halfpenny was worth only about half of the face value of the coin. Of course, unlike the legal state authorized mints, these individuals did not pay any royalties to the government.
In order to make the coins easier to put into circulation the minters purposefully cut shallow dies so the newly minted coins would lack sharp details and would thus appear worn. They also back dated there products using dates that included: 1747, 1771, 1772 and 1774-1778 as well as using the contemporary (or recent back dates) of 1787 and 1788. Interestingly, legitimate regal halfpence were not minted every year during this period; in fact no legitimate halfpence were produced during 1776-1778 or in 1787 or 1788. It seems the minters did not even try to keep their backdating accurate! Apparently this oversight was either not recognized by the general public or was intentionally overlooked as long as individuals felt the coins would be generally accepted.
Halfpence produced in sand molds (as opposed to those struck from dies on a press) were made of copper alloyed with less expensive metals such as lead or pewter. Depending on the alloy used these coins might weigh more than the struck imitation halfpence but their intrinsic value was usually even lower. Sand cast coppers had a grainy, worn appearance with indistinct lettering. They were also slightly smaller in size and often somewhat irregular in shape. For details on the production of sand mold halfpence see the introduction to British counterfeit halfpence.
The attribution of imitation British halfpence to an American mint is a difficult problem that has recently received much attention in numismatic literature. What complicates the situation is that at the same time these lightweight imitation coppers were being produced locally, a significant number of lightweight counterfeit halfpence were being imported into the U.S. from England and Ireland. Many numismatists have tended to associate the more crude coppers with American mints while the better quality counterfeits were associated with British mints. Byron Weston has questioned this tendency and has suggested using the term "anonymous" counterfeit for any non regal halfpenny that cannot be attributed to a specific mint.
Clearly, both imported and locally produced counterfeits circulated side by side in America and both are important to the history of what has been called "North American coppers." Imitation halfpence associated with an American origin are discussed in the following sections, all others are included under British coinage in a section on counterfeit copper.
In the following pages I have divided imitation British halfpence now considered to be of American origin into three categories: (1) those that have been associated with New York City, (2) those assigned to Machin's Mills and (3) a final group of unattributed imitation halfpence considered to have been produced in America. It should be realized until recently several authors used "Machin's Mills" as a generic term to refer to almost all struck imitation British halfpence made in America, or at least all of those halfpence associated with James Atlee (and some continue to use the term in that manner). Even as recently as 1985 Gary Trugden discussed the discovery of Vlack 24-72C as a Machin's Mills product, although two years later, in his seminal article on Atlee related halfpence, he would categorize it as a work of Atlee before arriving at Machin's Mills.
For a brief discussion of British halfpence counterfeited in America during the colonial period see the introduction to Counterfeit British Copper (the second portion is on counterfeits in America). Among the items mentioned are a few coins from the Philadelphia Highway Hoard probably produced in the colonies. Newman suspects a few of the unusual coins in the hoard coins were produced in Philadelphia as experimental pieces, these include the 1734 halfpenny cast in lead, the 1737 pewter cast hafpenny and the two 1738 pewter cast halfpence. For more information Click here.
See the bibliograhies in each of the following sections for works dealing with specific problems. A few items of general interest are: Norman Peters, "Machin's Mills Halfpence: America's Forgotten Early Coppers," The Numismatist (1986) 1803-1814 with a new variety in Gary Trudgen, "New Machin's Mills Die Variety -- Vlack 24-72C" The Colonial Newsletter 25 (June 1985, serial no. 70) 908; and another variety (Vlack 4-71D) in Frank Steimle "A New Atlee-Machin's Mills Counterfeit British Halfpence Reverse and Variety" The Colonial Newsletter 30 (October 1990, serial no. 86) 1189; Gary Trudgen,"James Atlee's Imitation British Halfpence," The Colonial Newsletter 27 (March 1987, serial no. 75) 966-979; William Anton and Bruce Kesse, The Forgotten Coins of the North American Colonies Iola, WI: Krause, 1992; Byron Weston, "Evasion Hybrids: A Commentary on Counterfeit Halfpence and Farthings," The Colonial Newsletter 34 (November 1994, serial no. 98) 1465-1468 with comments by J.C. Spilman following the article on the final page and John M. Kleeberg, "Reconstructing the Beach-Grünthal Hoard of Counterfeit Halfpence: The Montclair, New Jersey (1922) Hoard" The American Journal of Numismatics second series, vols. 7-8 (1995-1996) 187-208 and plates 24-27; Ruchard August and Ed Sarrafian, "Thomas Machin, James Atlee and Abel Buell," The C4 Newsletter, A quarterly publication of the Colonial Coin Collectors Club, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring, 1998) 25-32 followed by their " Machin Mills Coins: Condition Census, Die States, Discoveries, and Estimated Rarity by Grade," on pp. 33-38.
New York City Imitation Halfpence: Introduction and Coins
Machin's Mills Imitation Halfpence: Introduction and Coins
Unattributed Imitation Halfpence: Introduction and Coins
James Falconer Atlee and Confederation Era Coppers: Introduction
Blacksmith Coppers: Introduction and Coins
Section Contents NYC Imitation British Halfpence
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