This is one of the first attempts to create a smaller cent. The obverse design was crudely reduced from an 1854 silver dollar die using the portrait lathe resulting in many semi-circular patterns appearing on it. The 4 in the date is very weak so much so that these actually look like they are dated 1851 instead of 1854.
A letter from Mint Director James Ross Snowden to James Guthrie, Secretary of the Treasury, dated March 18, 1854, about the striking of these was related to us by Len Augsburger.
It is transcribed as follows:
"I herewith enclose to you a few specimens (9) of the proposed one-cent coin. These pieces are prepared solely to exhibit the size and character of the metal. They are intrinsically worth say 80 cents per 100, @ consequent seignorage of 20 pr. cent.
The dies were hastily prepared; the head being cut by copying lathe, from a silver-dollar pattern with[out] any re-touching or alteration. Both the metal and the devices will be better upon the coin if authorized. Mr. Booth [Melter & Refiner] says, “this metal will not alter in the wear.” If desirable more specimens will be forwarded to you when they shall have been prepared."
These were struck in many different alloys. Metalurgical analysis is recommended as the specific alloys listed in Judd and other reference works have not been confirmed. In addition, a third german silver and one actually containing silver have been discovered. Other compositions are likely. See below for more details.
German Silver 40% nickel, 40% copper, 20% zinc; reeded edge J156/P185.
German Silver 30% nickel, 60% copper, 10% zinc; reeded edge J157/P185.
German Silver 20% nickel, 71% copper, 9% zinc; reeded edge J157A/P185. This was mentioned in an April 1998 edition of Coin World and was discovered by Jay Parrino.
Overall, there are over a dozen German silver examples known.
40% nickel, 60% copper; reeded edge J158/P185.
78% silver, 5.6% nickel, 13.7% copper, 2.7% zinc; reeded edge J158A/P185A. This sold as lot 5004 in the 1998 ANA sale.
Copper; plain edge J159/P186. Die struck examples with only 2 or 3 known.
Copper; plain edge J159A/P186. Electrotypes with a nice seam around the edge. About a dozen are known.
Photo courtesy of American Numismatic Rarities.