Massachusetts Coppers 1787-1788: Introduction

During the Confederation era the usual method for initiating a state licensed mint was for the legislature to simply authorize or sell a minting franchise to a private group. The franchise would stipulate various regulations and restrictions and included a periodic fee to be paid to the state as a royalty. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, however, took a different path. In March of 1786 the General Court received a petition from Seth Reed and another from James Swan requesting permission for coining privileges. On March 23rd the Governor and his council formed a committee consisting of Mr. Hitchbourn, Mr. Grout and Mr. Williams to consider the "expediency and practicability" of coining money. At this point, on May 29th, James Swan decided to submit a second proposal in the hopes of influencing the decision in his favor.

On June 7, 1786 the committee submitted its report stating the coining of money was a viable enterprise. They estimated that for a total cost of £10,200 a mint could produce £20,000 in copper coins thus realizing a net profit of £9,800, almost doubling the return on investment! The report concluded:

it will not be in the interest of the Public to grant a Patent to any particular person to Coin & utter a certain sum of money in copper but that a mint should be established for the purpose at the cost & expence (sic) of the Commonwealth
Appended to the report was a table of the estimated expenses for producing £20,000 in coppers based on the assumption that each 2s8d in coppers would weigh one pound (that equalled 64 halfpence coins per pound giving a suggested weight of a little over 109 grains per halfpenny). The figures were as follows:

Expense Estimated Cost
165,000 pounds of copper £ 8,250
workhouse, furnace and
related apparatus
£ 250
four presses at £60 each £ 240
a planting mill
and related apparatus
£ 160
fuel for melting copper £ 250
eight laborers at
£60 per annum
£ 480
incidental charges £ 20
Superintendent's annual salary £ 250
government inspection committee of
three persons at £100 each per annum
£ 300
------ ------
Coins to be produced £ 20,000

After learning of the report James Swan submitted a third proposal, should he be given the coining contract he would offer to lend the Commonwealth £50,000 that was to be repaid at a later date through ten treasury bonds of three years each. There were several discussions and committee meeting on the issue of coinage over the next few months. It was finally decided, based on the figures in the committee report, that the Commonwealth should own the mint and keep the profits from its operation. On October 16, 1786,"An Act for establishing a Mint for the coinage of Gold, Silver and Copper" was passed in the House of Representatives and on the 17th was passed in the Senate and approved by the Governor, authorizing the construction of a state owned mint. A Boston goldsmith named Capt. Joshua Wetherle was appointed mintmaster to supervise the production of coppers. The law stipulated the obverse of the coins was to depict the figure of an Indian holding a bow and arrow with a star above (as on the state seal) and the legend "Commonwealth" while the reverse would carry an eagle with wings spread out and the legend "Massachusetts" along with the date.

As this was a government operation rather than a private enterprise there was more attention to details than at the private mints in Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey. In fact, Massachusetts was the only mint to conform to the federal resolution of July 6, 1785 establishing a decimal ratio of 100 cents to the Spanish milled dollar. The Massachusetts coppers were designated in decimal units of one-half cent and one cent at weights of 78.75 grains and 157.5 grains respectively. Thus, the cent was slightly heavier than the weight of a royal British halfpenny (authorized at 152.2 grains). However, the coins actually circulated at the same rate as Connecticut coppers, that is eighteen cent size coins to the shilling. As six shillings equalled a Spanish dollar, the coins actually circulated at less than their stated value since it took 108 cents to equal a dollar!

The dies for the Massachusetts coins were first produced by Joseph Callender, an engraver located on State Street in Boston, who had apprenticed at Revere's shop. In mid 1788, the state decided Callender's fee of 24 shillings per die was overpriced, so they gave the contract to a young twenty-two year old engraver in Newberryport, Jacob Perkins, who accepted a fee of one percent of all the coins struck using his dies. According to Crosby Perkins's dies can be distinguished from Callender's in that Perkins used a closed letter S that looks somewhat like an eight, while the earlier dies by Callender have a distinctly open letter S. Over the life of the mint, Perkins produced twenty six dies for which it has been estimated he received £3 18s or 3s per die. We do not know if Callender's charge was per die or per pair of dies, even assuming it was per pair of dies his fee per die would be 12s, substantially more than Perkin's 3s!

The costs of the mint were far higher than had originally been estimated. The committee had not even factored in the cost of dies! As costs mounted the state decided to conduct an audit of the minting operation. On November 5, 1788, the results of the audit were signed by Governor John Hancock and presented to the General Court. It was discovered £2,136 5s7d of the Commonwealth's funds had been expended to produce a total of £939 in coppers, leaving a net loss of £1,197 5s7d. Each coin cost more than double its face value to produce, just the inverse of the predictions in the initial report! The audit listed the following:

Expense Cost
expenses for the buildings £ 677 11s 2.5d
expenses for conducting business £ 1026 15s 4.5d
cost of copper £ 431 19s
TOTAL COSTS £ 2,136 5s 7d
--------- ---------
coins minted £ 939
Debt incurred £ 1,197 5s 7d

On November 17, 1788,the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ordered the mint closed once its current supply of copper was depleted. A committee was formed on November 22, 1788 to receive and judge private proposals for coining. On December 18th a proposal was submitted by a Jonathan Peirce of Salem and on December 31st a second proposal was received from a John May of Boston. A third unsigned proposal was submitted on January 1, 1789. On January 22 negotiations were started with John May. The following day, Friday January 23, 1789, the Massachusetts mint finally closed its doors. Negotiations with May were halted on February 17, 1789 when it was clear that article one, section eight, paragraph five of the new Federal Constitution of the United States (replacing the Articles of Confederation) made the coining of money a federal rather than a state function. [The Constitution was ratified by Massachusetts on February 6, 1788. After the ninth state ratified the Constitution in June 1788 (that was New Hampshire on June 21st) the Continental Congress set the first Wednesday in March, that is, March 8, 1789 as the date the Constitution would take effect.]

The Coins

Massachusetts coppers were well received and stayed in circulation for several decades. They were made on good quality copper planchets and were well struck. Also, whereas several of the private mints of the confederation era would cut costs by issuing lightweight coins, the Massachusetts mint continuously produced coins at their full legal weight. The total Massachusetts output was stated to be £1,048 2s7d worth of coppers, which based on a rate of 6s to the Spanish dollar equates to just under 3,500 Spanish dollars. Production totals have been estimated independently by James Spilman and Michael Packard. Information by coin type is as follows:


1787 CENT


1788 CENT

This equals about 100,000 - 115,000 half cents with a decimal value of about 500 - 575 Spanish milled dollars (circulation value at eighteen coppers to the shilling: $462.96 - $532.40) and about 292,000 - 300,000 cents with a decimal value of about 2,920 - 3,000 Spanish dollars (circulation value at eighteen to the shilling: $2,703.76 - $2,777.77). The total estimated production was about 400,000 coins with a decimal value of approximately 3,500 Spanish dollars.

Massachusetts Copper Die Charts

Below are copies of the Robert Vlack Massachusetts cent and halfcent die charts created in 1978, including interrelated die groupings. Contemporary counterfeits and a rarity scale are included.

Ryder coin designations are listed. The charts are presented as clickable 125 dpi jpg images, with details available for specific types.

Chart I - MA 1787 cents and some of the 1788 cents. The top half of chart containing the 1787 cent dies and the bottom half of chart containing part of the 1788 cents

Chart 2 - a continuation of the MA 1788 cents along with contemporary counterfeits. The top half of chart containing the remainder of the 1788 cents and the bottom half of chart containing contemporary counterfeits

Full chart of MA 1787 and 1788 halfcents. The top half of chart containing 1787 halfcents and the lower portion of chart containing 1788 halfcents followed by Vlack's 1978 rarity scale


The most complete descriptive listing of Massachusetts coppers is still Hillyer Ryder "The Copper Coinage of Massachusetts" in The State Coinages of New England  NY:ANS, 1920, pp. 69-76 and plate VII; Breen, pp. 87-89; Crosby, pp. 225-274; Mossman, pp. 191-193; J.C.Spilman, "A Quantity Analysis of Massachusetts Cents and Half Cents," The Colonial Newsletter 27 (November 1987, serial no. 77) 1014-1015; Michael Packard, "Rarity Values of Massachusetts Copper Coins," The Colonial Newsletter 27 (November 1987, serial no. 77) 1013 and his "Auction Appearances of Massachusetts Coppers," The Colonial Newsletter 29 (August 1989, serial no. 82) 1100-1107; for another opinion on rarity see, Richard August, "Massachusetts Coppers Rarity Rating - A Second Opinion," The C4 Newsletter, A quarterly publication of the Colonial Coin Collectors Club, vol. 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1998) 41-43.

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Section Contents Massachusetts Copper Coins

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