Joseph Wright The legacy cut short.
By: Sam Shafer of Lost Dutchman Rare Coins
The Liberty Cap Large Cent is easily one of the most beloved designs in United States coinage and numismatics. To collectors of early copper, they are the bread and butter. Often collected not only be date but with emphasis on every specific die variety. To the average type collector, finding one or two nice examples will usually suffice, although the quest for the right piece can be quite challenging and rewarding. To behold a nice, chocolate brown, honestly worn, Liberty Cap Large cent is to peer back into the past, particularly the history of the United States mint during its infancy.
The coin features, a youthful, robust Lady Liberty, with flowing hair, in front of a pole, which fixed atop is the Phrygian cap, a beloved symbol of freedom to Americans in the 19th century. It is a design which few collectors can argue with. Unlike the early iterations of Lady Liberty, ie. The Chain Cent “Liberty in a fright” as contemporaries referred to it and the wreath cent, which was hardly an improvement of elegance, the Liberty Cap design is one that is considered quite charming. It’s simplicity, artistry, and perhaps even one of “whimsy” as the reference book on them by William Sheldon is titled.
Yet unlike the other prolific and popular designs of the 19th century, the Liberty Cap design was somewhat unique. The designer of the coin was a man named Joseph Wright, who was also the first somewhat unofficial head engraver of the United States mint.
Joseph Wright was a New Jersey native, and a known portrait artist when he assumed the position of engraver and die sinker at the US mint in 1793. Before assuming his work on the Liberty Cap cents he created one of the first plaster molds of George Washington. His art style was French influenced, and for his cent coin he drew heavily upon Augustin Dupre’s 1783 Libertas Americana Medal.
Joseph Wrights Liberty Cap design was created before most Americans had ever held, or circulated a true United States penny. Sadly, Mr. Wright never saw the result of his work.
In the Spring of 1793 a large outbreak of Yellow fever began afflicting the city of Philadelphia. The fever was known for causing a yellow tinge to the eyes and skin, vomiting, stomach bleeding, and agony to those affected. Sadly, the talented (and newly appointed) chief engraver Wright was one of the 5000+ that succumbed to the disease. During the 19th century, diseases like yellow fever were treated as cases where “bad air” or “miasma” was the culprit. Treatments included, purging and bleeding, through methods which would now seem strange and barbaric.
Joseph Wright passed away on September 1793, his position at the mint was then assumed by Robert Scot. Despite slight modifications from Robert Scot Wright’s artistic legacy lived on with the Liberty Cap cent which was struck from 1793-1797 when it was eventually replaced with the Draped Bust design. What other charming designs Wright may have conjured up will sadly never be answered.
To ask a collector today why he or she likes the coins, the answer “The history” is one of the phrases so commonly heard. In the case of Liberty Cap Large Cents, there is certainly quite a tale to be told, not only of the United States mint in it’s primitive beginning, but also of an engraver who left quite a posthumous legacy.