Could there be a more appropriate thing to place in a cornerstone or time capsule than a thoughtfully chosen coin? Not in my opinion. They are almost always dated and are a cultural reflection of those who selected them for inclusion. The fact that coins were included in the time capsule entombed in the Massachusetts State House in 1795 by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere shows they thought so too. No one should have been surprised to see American coins when the contents of the copper box found in the Lee Monument were revealed after 134 years.
A dense parcel of coins, wrapped in grungy paper and bound with crumbling twine, emerged from the coffer with its explanatory label still attached. Inked onto the back of half a business card are the words;
12 Copper Coins to Lee Monument from Charles E. Harwood + Walter B. Harwood
Two little boys who love to revere the memory of R E Lee
True to the inscription, a dozen copper coins, each enveloped in its own scrap of paper, emerged from the outer wrapper. Thinking back to the America of 1887, one might expect these twelve to have been skimmed from the cream of the United States Mint’s superb product line. Perhaps some specially made proof 1887-dated cents, with surfaces as reflective as a new mirror?
Nope. In place of intrinsically or aesthetically notable examples, twelve large coppers, all well-worn, were revealed as the surprisingly modest contents of the young Harwood’s cornerstone contribution. Bearing different dates between 1798 and 1845, they are all “Large Cents” produced by the U.S. Mint from 1793 to 1857 and represent all five designs struck during the time spanned by the assemblage.
The same Congressional Act which sought to end the use of foreign silver coins in the United States also brought an end to the Large Cent. In its place came newly designed smaller coins, of the same size as the current cent. First struck in copper-nickel and bearing an image of a flying eagle, they were followed by the iconic “Indian Head Penny” in 1859, produced in huge numbers for the next half century. This latter type was the “cent of the realm” in late-1880s Richmond, the world of the Harwood family.
When wrapped up for inclusion in the Monument, the Large Cents had been superseded for thirty years and had all but disappeared from circulation. The Harwood brothers likely never had the occasion to spend such a cent in their boyish lives.
Their father, Charles W. Harwood, was a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who had served with the 1st Virginia Artillery and the Commissary Department. Afterwards, he married, started a family, and worked as a freight agent for the Southern railway whose halved business card served as a label for the bundle of coins. If one assumes the Harwoods were a typical middle-class family in late 19th c. Richmond, it is easy to understand why the offerings of their sons Charles E., age 13, and Walter, age 8, are unpretentious. Carefully collected, neatly packaged-up, and bound with a loving dedication, these worn out, old-fashioned “big pennies” represent the treasured collection of a pair of kids, though perhaps not “little boys” by either 1887 or 2022 standards.
As a coin collector since early childhood, I instantly knew what these dozen coins represented from their father’s label. I’ve been enamored with Large Cents since my grandfather showed me one from 1838 when I was only five or six years old. He explained the ancient coin in my hand was a huge version of the beloved “penny,” and I was permanently hooked. The last Large Cent acquired for my personal collection came in March of this year, proving my lust for them remains undiminished over fifty years.
Charlie Harwood, his younger brother Walt, and I are in good company. Americans – and even some Europeans – have been collecting Large Cents since the time they were current. Appearing in 1793, they were the first coins struck for circulation by the United States Mint and there is even a national club dedicated to their collecting, preservation, and study. One might say the Large Cent has its own cult following.
Today, the choicest rarities can bring well in excess of a million dollars, and many of the “mint condition” 18th c. Large Cents can be traced back to European collections. Though examples were surely sold at auction in America earlier, the first “date set” of Large Cents was offered in 1858, when Philadelphia coin dealer Edward Cogan sold his personal collection. That was the year after the last Large Cent popped off the coining press!
But the assemblage of these fresh-faced brothers was much humbler than those gathered by well-monied 19th c. numismatists. With a face value of one one-hundredth of a dollar, the ubiquitous cent could be collected for a minimal investment in 1887, just as it can be in 2022. No doubt that’s why they’re pursued by novice collectors, with the principal challenge lying in chasing and acquiring examples of needed dates or specific varieties. The hunt is enjoyable, but success gives greater satisfaction, especially when shared with those who suffer the same affliction.
The Harwood coins bear the dates 1798, 1814, 1818, 1819, 1820, 1826, 1831, 1833, 1839, 1841, and 1845. Only one battered penny, probably struck in the late 1810s, has an illegible date. The 1814 specimen stands out, not just because it is in relatively good condition, but because it is of the rarest type in the collection. Nicknamed the “Classic Head” variety, it was only struck from 1808 until 1814, with a mere 357,830 examples made during its last year of production. By comparison with other dates in the Harwood group, one can get an idea of the 1814’s scarcity; 1,841,745 cents were struck in 1798 and 4,407,550 were produced in 1820. And just for fun I’ll throw in the number of cents emitted by the U.S. Mint in 2021; about 7,908,620,000. Yes, that’s billions, not millions.
Were these dozen examples all the boys had, or do they represent duplicate examples? And why are there no coins made between 1846 and 1857, the Large Cent’s final twelve years? We’ll probably never know why the Harwood brothers chose to donate their collection in memory of Robert E. Lee. Or why Mr. W. B. Isaacs, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Virginia Masons, accepted the bundle of coins for inclusion into the cornerstone of the Lee Monument.
Perhaps the answer is simple; the gift of the “little boys’” coin collection was judged a nostalgic, sincere, heartwarming, and patriotic tribute. No doubt, until his death in 1955, every time Walter Harwood passed the Lee Monument, he thought of the modest boyhood penny collection he and his long-dead brother had placed deep within its pedestal.
Senior Curator of Mechanical Arts & Numismatics
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Other posts in the Cornerstone Contributions series may be found in DHR’s archive of Archaeology Blogs.
 See the “Official Red Book,” formally entitled A Guide Book of United States Coins 2022, by R. S. Yeoman, pp.96-105.
 See note #2.
Updated: July 15, 2022