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Massachusetts Pine Tree penny

Massachusetts Pine Tree penny Copper pattern coin

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  • This 1776 Massachusetts Pine Tree copper penny was unearthed during an excavation in Boston's North End in the early 19th century. Since Massachusetts did not issue copper coins in 1776 (probably due to the scarcity of copper), this penny is the only known original and, as such, is the most often consulted item in the numismatics collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Paul Revere strikes again

    Paul Revere has been credited as the designer and engraver of the Massachusetts Pine Tree penny based upon stylistic similarities with a unique "Janus Head" half penny that was discovered with engravings and proofs of Revere's continental currency notes, as well as by comparison of lettering details on the coins with Revere's engraved 1775-1776 currency and securities printing plates. Additional confirmation is in the evidence that the die for the reverse of the penny sank during production--the result of Revere's inexperience as a die-maker.

    Revere's design for the Pine Tree penny borrowed symbols from local and classical sources. The pine tree alludes both to the Sons of Liberty flag of the Revolutionary era and to earlier Massachusetts pine tree coins. The goddess of Liberty, freely adapted from the Britannia of English coins, holds aloft the Pileus cap, a symbol since Roman times of freedom from slavery. The animal at Liberty's feet is a watchdog--a symbol of vigilance. All of these elements create such an attractive coin that several copies have been made of it. None is from a cast of the actual coin, and all have translated Revere's error--the shift in the coin's reverse plane where the die sank--as a raised line around seated Liberty. Most copies also have replicated a mistake made by William Sumner Appleton that was repeated in Sylvester Crosby's monumental The Early Coins of America.

    A cent or a penny?

    After Boston numismatist William Sumner Appleton acquired this coin in 1863, he researched it for a paper he presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1870, pairing it with a unique half penny (the "Janus Head") and theorizing that they were patterns for 1776 Massachusetts copper coins. While there is no mention of a proposal to mint copper coins in the Acts and Resolves of Massachusetts from 1775 through 1778, Appleton believed that the existence of 1776 New Hampshire copper coins made it a viable assumption that Massachusetts might also have planned to mint coins at that time.

    Appleton's description of the penny in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society contained one major error, however, and it is this error that defines many of the copies of this coin. Mindful that the United States officially coined cents and not pennies, Appleton took the legend flanking the trunk of the pine tree on the obverse to be "1C LM" (for 1 cent Lawful Money)--instead of its actual reading, "1d LM," the British symbol for a penny. If you find a copy of the Pine Tree penny, examine it closely to see if it repeats this logical mistake.

    Numismatics at the Massachusetts Historical Society

    The MHS numismatic collection consists of approximately 5,000 medals and tokens, 100 coins, 400 buttons and ribbons, and 3,000 examples of paper money. The strengths of the collection are early colonial Massachusetts coinage, paper money circulating in Massachusetts in the colonial period, paper money and fiscal paper issued by the Continental Congress, obsolete bank notes and scrip issued in Massachusetts, and medals and tokens related to Massachusetts and to the Society's manuscript collections. Many of the coins and medals in the collection are described in Malcolm Storer's Numismatics of Massachusetts (Boston, 1923), published as volume 76 of the MHS Collections. For more information, or to set up an appointment to view items in this collection, please contact the curator at abentley@masshist.org.

    Suggestions for further reading:

    Appleton, William Sumner. "Medals and Coins Relating to America," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 10 (1869-1870), p. 292-305.

    Breen, Walter. Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (New York: Doubleday, 1988).

    Crosby, Sylvester S. The Early Coins of America (New York: Sanford J. Durst Numismatic Publications, 1983 reprint of the original 1875 edition).

    Vermule, Cornelius. Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinage (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971).

    Witness to America's Past: Two Centuries of Collecting by the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, 1991), p. 113.


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