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Indian Head Cents 1859 – 1909

Learn About the History of the Indian Head Cent 1859 – 1909

Because the Flying Eagle Cent was difficult to strike up in the mix of 88% copper and 12% nickel, the US Mint needed to come up with a solution. James B. Longacre, the Chief Engraver at the US Mint at the time sought to design a solution.

So, in 1858, the Mint struck up a number of designs – patterns – to see which would strike up well, while still being made of hard copper nickel. James Ross Snowden, who was the Director of the US Mint at the time, selected the Indian Head design. It seemed to strike up better than any of the others and required the least amount of pressure. It had the lowest relief of all of the designs attempted.  Snowden also chose a laurel wreath design for the reverse of the coin. The final design would be a bust of Miss Liberty, facing left, towards the West, wearing an Indian headdress, with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” surmounting Miss Liberty and the date below her. The reverse was simple, the words “ONE CENT” on two lines centered inside a wreath of oak leaves.

The design was simple, and elegant yet had an air of European sophistication. Contrary to the rumors that persist in our hobby, Longacre did not model this coin after his 12-year-old daughter. In 1858, “little” Sarah Longacre was actually 30 years old and married. Longacre said he was inspired by the face of the “Crouching Venus” statue which was being exhibited in Philadelphia at the time. With Longacre preparing the dies, the US Mint staff was ready to begin striking the coins on January 1, 1859.

(The 1859 Indian Head Cent, designed by Engraver James B. Longacre.)

No sooner had the new Indian Cent gone into production but the country was embroiled in a national debate over slavery and state’s rights. Most importantly, the election of 1860 sent the nation down the path of unavoidable confrontation. The country elected Abraham Lincoln of Illinois as President and the Southern slave-holding states were thinking that a separate and independent nation might be a good idea for their future existence.

(The 1860 Indian Head Cent, with a newer and more patriotic reverse.)

Snowden thought, given the times, that a more patriotic reverse should accompany the newly-designed Indian Head obverse and so in 1860, the reverse design was changed after only one year.  The laurel wreath was replaced by an oak wreath with a shield atop it. The laurel wreath traditionally symbolized triumph while an oak wreath symbolized wisdom and Snowden had hoped the new one-cent coin would demonstrate that the United States had the wisdom to remain free and united. It didn’t!

In April of 1861, shots were fired at the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and the Civil War had begun.  With the beginning of the war, gold and silver were now being hoarded and were in short supply. As the war progressed, the demand for nickel grew and now Indian Head Cents were being hoarded. The shortage of small change created a need that was filled by Civil War Tokens.

The “new” 1864 Bronze Indian Head Cent is made of 95% Copper and 5%Tin and Zinc.)

In 1864 the Indian Head Cent changed yet again. This time the war demand for nickel caused the coin’s composition to be changed, but not its design.  The new coin was now being made of 95% Copper and a 5% mixture of Tin and Zinc.

1864 saw the minting of both Copper-nickel and Bronze coins with the copper-nickel specimens bought up by speculators as fast as they were minted. Coins minted during the rest of the 1860s were uneventful except for an 1864 variety with an “L” (for Longacre) on the ribbon and a 1869/9 variety coin.  

(The 1864 – “L” on ribbon Variety.)

The 1870s were a different story entirely. Every date from 1870 through 1873 had millions of coins struck and an n abundance of varieties. 1874 had none, 1875 had 1 variety and 1876 had none. But in 1877 less than a million coins were struck and combined with the slow demand for cents and an unstable economy, the rarest Indian Head cent was created. 1877 is a rare date coin in all grades and is considered the key to the set.

The 1880s saw mintages in the tens of millions of coins for each date. In 1886 two distinct varieties of 1886-dated Indian cent are known. The Type I coin has the lowest feather on the obverse pointing between the I and the C in “AMERICA”, while on Type II it points between the C and the final A. There is also an overdate of 1888 with the last 8 over a 7.

(1894 Doubled Date [94/94] Indian Head Cent.)

In the entire 1890s, there is only major variety, 1894 which has a Doubled Date, which is doubled 94/94. The remainder of the series through 1909 offered no major varieties but in 1908 the first Indian Head Cents ever struck at a branch mint were made in San Francisco. Bothe the 1908-S and 1909-S Indian Head cents are considered key dates for the series, with the 1909-S significantly rarer than its older brother.

Collecting Indian Head cents is one of the classic series of coins for collectors and it is a series that can be completed with most budgets. It is a link to an earlier time – before the Civil War.

DateTypeMintageFine ValueUnc Value
1859Indian Cent – Copper Nickel Laurel Wreath36,400,000$35$325
1860-1864Indian Cents – Copper Nickel10,000,000 to 50,000, 000$50$175
1864Indian Cent – Bronze39,233,714$40$125.00
1864Indian Cent – Bronze w/ “L”Included$200$500
1866 – 1869Indian Cents 6,000,000 to 10,000,000$100$350
1869Indian Cent – Overdate 9/9Included$500$1,000
1870 – 1873Indian Cents4,000,000 to 11,000,000$400$900
1874 – 1876Indian Cents8,000,000 to 14,000,000$70$300
1877Indian Cent852,500$1,750$4,000
1878Indian Cent7,944,000$75$400
1879 – 1885Indian Cents12,000,000 to 45,000,000$25$150
1886Indian Cent–Type I17,650,000$30$300
1886Indian Cent-Type 2Included$35$350
1887-1894Indian Cents17,000,000 to 47,000,000$8$65
1894Indian Cent – Doubled DateIncluded$85$900
1895- 1908Indian Cents32,000,000 to 108,000,000$7$50
1908-SIndian Cent1,115,000$150$325
1909Indian Cent14,368,470$25$60
1909-SIndian Cent309,000$600$1,250

Expand your collection today and shop our assortment of Indian Head Pennies (1859-1909).

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