Dr. James Mease: Descriptions of Early Coinage

Last week I told of James Mease, M.D., of Philadelphia, one of America’s pioneer numismatists who wrote about the Mint in 1811. This week I go into my archives for an article published by us in 1997:


Through the courtesy of Anne Bentley, of the Massachusetts Historical Society, we received a copy of the Society’s Collections, Vol. VII, of the Third Series, published in Boston by Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1838. These items were included to which I have added modern comments in italic type:

The following account of some American coins, issued before the establishment of the present government, by some of the States, was furnished by Dr. James Mease of Philadelphia/

No. 1. This coin is larger than a half cent. On one side it has thirteen ribs or bars which run parallel to, and are equi-distant from each other. On the other side are the letters U.S.A. the S. being of larger size, running across the other two letters. It has no date nor any other inscription.

This is the so-called Bar Cent or Bar Copper, examples of which are believed to have first circulated in New York City in the summer of 1785. The simple design may have been copied from a Continental Army uniform button.

No. 2. On one side a head surrounded by “Georgius. Dei. Gratia. Rex.” On the other side is a rose and the following inscription, “Rosa. Americana. Utile. Dulci. 1722. The coin No. 2 resembles very much, one lately found in Charleston, and of which the following account was published in the Charleston papers:

“CURIOUS COIN.—The workmen in preparing the foundation of St. Phillips Church, have found a Coin, the age of which is now 113 years, with the head of George the First. The inscription around which is—GEORGIUS, D. G. Mag. Bri, Fra. Et. Hib. Rex. On the opposite side is a Rose—the inscription, Rosa, Americana, 1722, Utile Dulci. It probably is a coin of one of the Old Thirteen Colonies. Another of these coins was found in April 1835, in digging a garden in Washington; Penna., bordering on Brook County, Virginia.—J.M.”

This is one of the Rosa Americana pieces dated 1722-1724, struck in Bath metal, and produced in England by William Wood as a speculation, for distribution in the American colonies.

No. 3. On one side a chain of thirteen circular links running around the face of the coin. In the centre a circle, having upon it the words “We are one,” and around these words, “United States.” On the other side there is a sun at meridian height, looking down upon a dial, beneath which appear these words, “Mind your business.” The word “Fugio,” and the date 1787 also appear on the same side of the coin.

This is the self-named Fugio copper, examples of which were made under private contract for the federal government beginning in 1787. The mottoes are thought to have been the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin.

No. 4. On one side the American Eagle, having on its breast a shield, with the word CENT upon it. Around the face of the Coin is “MASSACHUSETTS 1788.” On the other side is an Indian at full length with his bow and arrow, and the word COMMONWEALTH.

Produced at a mint operated by the state of Massachusetts, such coins (the first American coins to be denominated “CENT”) and related half cents bore the dates 1787 and 1788 and were produced in quantity. When an audit of the mint took place in 1789, it was found that each coin cost twice face value to produce. End of mint.

No. 5. On one side a sheaf of wheat, and the words “PEACE AND PLENTY;” on the other, a full length portrait of Fame blowing her trumpet, and these words “FOR THE CONVENIENCE OF THE PUBLIC.” There is a date upon it, but the third figure is so badly done, as to leave a doubt whether it is 1784, or some earlier period.

This is a Conder token struck in England in the 1790s. Different varieties exist. The token is not related to America.

No. 6. On one side a Sun, with thirteen stars around it, and the words “NOVA CONSTELLATIO;” on the other, the letters U.S. surrounded by a vignette, and the words “LIBERTAS ET JUSTITIA 1785.”

This is one of several varieties of Nova Constellatio coppers dated 1783 or 1785 and thought by many to have been made in England for distribution in America.

No. 7. Is the Jersey Half-penny, having on one side a shield, surrounded by the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM;” on the other a Horse’s head and a plough, with the words “NOVA CÆSAREA, 1785.”

No doubt this piece was well worn, for specimens were made (or at least are known today) only with the dates 1786, 1787, and 1788, those of 1787 being most plentiful, followed by 1786, with the 1788 pieces being considerably scarcer. These coins were produced by several private contractors at various places in New Jersey and, to a lesser extent, unofficially in the state of New York.

No. 8. On one side a head and the word “AUCTORI CONNEC,” on the other a female figure very much in the form of a gingerbread child, holding what may be an olive branch in one hand, and a bow and arrow in the other, with the date below it of 1787. This is the old farthing of our boyhood.

This is a charming description of a Connecticut copper coin of the 1785-1788 era. The reverse shows a female figure seated, with a branch in one hand and a liberty cap and pole on the other. The motif was copied from the British halfpenny, which in turn was copied from a coin of ancient Rome. Apparently, Dr. Mease remembered such coins being in circulation when he was a child.

No. 9. Has on one side a head, and the words “GEORGIUS III Rex.” On the opposite side is a shield cut into quarters, containing respectively the coats of arms of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Virginia, surmounted with a crown, and surrounded with “Virginia, 1773.” A coin similar to this was a year or two ago dug up in a garden…

This is the well-known 1773 Virginia copper halfpenny, minted in London and distributed in Virginia beginning two years later in 1775. In the late nineteenth century a hoard of thousands of brilliant Mint State pieces was revealed in the possession of Baltimore numismatist Col. Mendes I. Cohen. Earlier, including in Dr. Mease’s time, high-grade pieces were considered to be quite rare.

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