1794 Starred Reverse Cent

The John W. Adams specimen of the 1794 Starred Reverse cent, photographed by Walter Husak, who later acquired the piece. Graded Extremely Fine, this is the finest known. The detail view is from a VF-25 (PCGS) coin in a New England collection.

Do you know the story of the 1794 Starred Reverse cent? If not, you might enjoy this iteration of one of our very favorite American coin varieties. These notes were written by your editor in 1982 in connection with the sale of the John W. Adams Collection of 1794 cents, and more recently, slightly revised as a note in one of our auctions.
If you do know about the variety, it may be like the Twice Told Tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1837); you will want to read it again!
Notes on the 1794 Starred Reverse Cent
Over the year much attention has been given in numismatic literature to this remarkable variety. Dr. Sheldon described it as follows:
The famous reverse with the circle of ninety-four minute five pointed-stars seen just inside the border and between the points of the denticles. The stars are not quite equally spaced; the denticles partially cover some of them. They are put in with light punch, and since they are far too light to have been intended as a border, it is perhaps more likely that they are the result of the whim of an idle hour at the Mint. The Starred Reverse variety is in the lower range of R-6 but its great fame ordains a high basal value. Collectors mention it with religious awe.
In 1969 Dr. Warren A. Lapp, a guiding light of the Early American Coppers group, published the history of the piece as part of Penny-Wise, the EAC’s periodical:
So far as is known, Henry C. Chapman of Philadelphia was the first person to ‘discover’ the starred reverse of the 1794 S-48 large cent. While examining a lot of large cents with his brother, S. Hudson Chapman, and Dr. Edward Maris, the Philadelphia Quaker physician, he picked up the coin, examined it, and then exclaimed: “Here is a die with minute stars around the reverse.”
Dr. Maris, who was the first numismatist to make an extensive study of the 1794 series, then examined the coin and confirmed Henry Chapman’s discovery, remarking at the time that “it was previously unknown.”
The preceding scenario took place in 1877. S.H. and Henry Chapman, known as the Chapman brothers, catalogued the coin and offered it on February 11 and 12, 1880, in their presentation of the Samuel A. Bispham Collection.
On April 6, 1880, J. Chandler Roach, specialist in copper cents, wrote to New York City dealer and numismatic scholar Édouard Frossard, relating that he owned a specimen of the Starred Reverse (the name later given to the variety), and that a third was owned by Lorin G. Parmelee in Boston, who was in competition with T. Harrison Garrett in building the finest American coin collection of the time. Frossard published this in the May 1880 issue of Numisma, further noting that in his own stock he had found yet another, a specimen finer than any of the previous three.
In July 1880, Mason’s Coin & Stamp Collector’s Magazine, stated,
For the first time, in any journal we present a description of the new and important discovery of the new and beautiful “Starred” variety of the U.S. cent of 1794. This coin made its debut at a coin sale in New York last February, and was purchased by a lucky dealer for four dollars and twenty-five cents! A duplicate of this rare piece was picked up in this city in March, and is now for sale at this office. The “starred” variety differs from the common pieces only on the reverse. Eighty-nine [sic; actually 94] small, five pointed stars circle around the serrated, or milled border, just between the points, giving to the cent a really handsome appearance. The above pieces are from original dies, and give evidence of considerable circulation and abrasions.…
R. C. Davis, the well-known numismatist, has after considerable investigation discovered that the starred variety of the 1794 U.S. cent derives its origin from the experimental piece of 1792, known as the “Eagle on a Rock,”, which can only be seen in the Mint Cabinet of Coins, this city. Around the edge of the latter are eighty-seven small five pointed stars, bearing an exact resemblance to the stars on 1794 starred cent. This fact leads to the conclusion that some of the planchets bearing only the stars, were used when the Mint authorities were coining the 1794 cents. This explanation enhances the fictitious value of the three known specimens of the “Starred “94” now owned by Haseltine, Roach and Mason of this city.
Although many coin dealers have inflated egos, in the late 19th century few could match that of Ebenezer Locke Mason, Jr., publisher of this journal. In his account, which he noted was the first to appear in any journal, he did not state that it had been described earlier in an auction catalog, nor did he bother to mention the Chapmans.
Theories were aplenty, and facts were scarce regarding the curious variety. Dr. Maris thought that the number of stars might have referred to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Davis’ theory that old planchets for the 1792 pattern quarter dollar with an eagle on a globe, from dies by Joseph Wright (as we describe the “Eagle on a Rock” coin today), can be discarded. The stars on the 1792 coin were in the die, not on the planchet. In any event, any planchet that did have raised stars, an impossibility, would have had the stars flattened when it was used in a coining press. While today this might seem elementary, in 1880 numismatic science was in its developmental stages.
Frossard picked up on the Davis comments, and expanded upon them in the September 1880 issue of Numisma, as part of this commentary:
Of course, since the stars were already stamped upon the old rejected planchets when put in use in 1794, it follows that the chain of stars may in some cases be found on the obverse as well as the reverse; and since a large number of dies were used, it also follows that the stars may be found in several varieties. Since the happy discovery of Mr. Davis the Starred Cent cannot, in fact, any longer be considered as a distinct variety. It becomes simply an oddity, an interesting peculiarity, nothing else.
In time the 1794 cent became known as the Starred Reverse, and in Early American Cents, 1949, as quoted above, Dr. William H. Sheldon designated it as his S-48 variety. By that time it was recognized as a distinct variety struck from a unique reverse die, on an ordinary planchet. It may have been intended as a pattern of some sort, or perhaps die was cut at “an idle hour at the Mint.”
No present-day discussion of this famous coin would be complete without including the theory proposed by Don Taxay in Scott’s Catalogue and Encyclopedia of United States Coins, 1976 edition:
The 1794 cent with ninety-four stars around the reverse is at once an essai and regular issue. The idea of substituting stars for the usual serrations no doubt inspired the similar border of the 1792 pattern quarter dollar. However, the starred border was finally rejected by the Mint, and the serrations were added to the die, in part covering the tiny stars. The altered die was then placed into regular production.
In the opinion of the present writer the Taxay argument has considerable merit. Wright’s 1792 pattern quarter, approximately the diameter of a 1794 cent, had on the reverse a circle of five-pointed stars almost identical in concept and execution to those found on the 1794 S-48, as noted.
It is not difficult to envision a scenario in which another reverse die was commenced, with a circle of stars, punching them in one by one, taking care to space them correctly and to have the top point facing toward the outer rim. After this was done, and before anything else was engraved on the die the project was cancelled, possibly because the Mint did not find stars to be as satisfactory as dentils. Perhaps the stars, being set in from the edge (as opposed to dentils which are incorporated into the edge) would have resulted in die chipping and breakage. The die, containing only the border of stars, was probably made in 1792, the date of the Wright piece.
Rather than waste the die, which at that point consisted of a dressed metal cylinder with stars punched on it, it was decided to use it for regular coinage. However, no early issues of 1793 matched its diameter of approximately 29 millimeters (the Chain and Wreath cents of 1793 being 26 to 27 millimeters). The first possibility would have been the appearance of the Liberty Cap style cent, introduced late in 1793. The beaded border of the 1793 Liberty Cap cents obviously would have conflicted with the starred idea, so the use of the die had to await the adoption of dentils, which could be cut in over the stars, in 1794.
The fact that the stars are partially covered by dentils in many instances and are hardly visible on the coin, except under close scrutiny (which is why the variety eluded collectors until 1877), indicates that the star feature was hardly intended as a main element of the cent reverse design. Had they been the result of a “whim of an idle hour at the Mint,” as Dr. Sheldon postulates, then in the present writer’s opinion the stars would not have been overpunched with dentils. Rather, the stars would have been put in the dentil interstices (assuming that the stars were cut first) or would have been placed between the lettering and the denticles. To have meticulously oriented and positioned 94 minute stars around the periphery of the die as a “whim,” and then to obliterate this extensive work by overcutting dentils, hardly seems to be work done in “an idle hour.”
The 1794 Starred Reverse cent keeps its secret well, and perhaps the true details will never be known.

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