The United States Mint first introduced the one-cent coin in 1793 along with the half-cent coin, produced by their newly established refinery in Philadelphia. That first one-cent coin was made of pure copper and had a diameter of 1⅛ inch (22.57 mm). It was almost the size of a half-dollar coin and, because of that, it came to be known as the Large Cent.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the discovery of gold in California led to an inflation in other precious metals prices, including copper. With the increased production costs for the cent and the half-cent, the US Mint rushed to look for alternatives. In 1857, the Mint discontinued the half-cent altogether. They also changed the composition of the one-cent coin to 12% nickel and 88% copper and reduced its size to 0.750 inches (19.05 mm). The diameter is the same still used nowadays for the denomination, although current pennies are slightly thinner.
In addition, a new design was issued for circulation in 1857, the Flying Eagle. It was created by Philadelphia Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. He based the eagle in flight design on his predecessor’s work, Christian Gobrecht. The reverse featured the denomination encircled by a wreath.
The nickel composition made the coins look brighter than the previous issue. For that reason, people called it the “White cent” or “Nicks”.
The Flying Eagle design, however, caused some production difficulties and the Mint quickly replaced it in 1859, for the Indian Head Penny. Longacre was, again, the designer for the new coin.
The new obverse featured the goddess Liberty wearing a Native American headdress. The words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” encircle the portrait, with the mint year below. A numismatic tale suggests that the facial features of Lady Liberty were based on Longacre’s daughter.
The reverse showed a similar laurel wreath with the denomination on the center, as it had been used for the Flying Eagle design. The wreath was changed to an oak wreath with a shield on top in 1860.
Indian Head Pennies were produced in the Philadelphia branch and on the San Francisco branch. Only the ones made in San Francisco carry a mint mark, the letter “S” on the reverse, below the wreath.
During the American Civil War, demand for nickel increased dramatically to be used in the war efforts. For that reason, prices of nickel went up and people began to hoard the copper-nickel cents for their intrinsic value. In 1864, The US Congress passed a new Coinage Act, authorizing the production of one-cent coins with a bronze alloy (95% copper and 5% tin and zinc).
The popularity of the Indian Head penny increased wildly in the postwar years. The US Mint would go on to use the design until 1909 when it was replaced by the Lincoln Cent.
What are the most valuable head pennies now?
As the Indian Cent contains no precious metal content (e.g. gold or silver), their value derives straight from their numismatic appeal as a collectible coin. First of all, Indian Head pennies, from any mint year, are over 100 years old. Therefore, any specimen found, in any condition, even circulated pennies, are bound to draw the attention of a coin collector. It is important to note, however, that the better the condition, the better the coin value. Therefore, a rare find of an Indian Penny in uncirculated condition will certainly be able to reach higher figures than a circulated one with greater wear marks.
On top of that, the Indian Head design was introduced shortly before the American Civil War. Many numismatists consider the early issues, that were in circulation throughout the war period, to be part of American history.
Here are a few key mint years and varieties to keep an eye out for if you are interested in coin collecting:
- 1859 - As it was the first issue of the Indian Head design, and the only one with the laurel wreath on the reverse, this issue would be a prize to any collector. The main contributing factor is that coins from this year are hard to find, especially in good condition. One MS66+ specimen sold for $34,500 at a Heritage Auction in 2012;
- 1869 (Double 9) - Already in the post-war bronze era, regular 1869 strikes wouldn’t be considered the most expensive from the series. However, a few strikes from the Philadelphia Mint came with a mint error where the number 9 on the mint year is doubled. Only a few specimens with that error were found. The auction record for that type is $84,000!
- 1873 Closed “3 and Double “Liberty” - There are two variations of the 1873 issue that can realize high figures at an auction. One of them has the number 3 on the mint year just a few inches from being closed. That won has sold for over $54,000. The other one has a mint error where two Liberty busts seem to have been over placed during the minting process. That caused some double features on the bust face, and also the word “Liberty” to appear doubled on the native American headband. An MS65 specimen sold for $69,000 in 2005.
- 1877 - This issue is arguably the rarest of the Indian Head cents. The reason is that, at the time, the country was going through a poor economy which caused a small demand for cents. Therefore, only 852,500 were minted that year. That is, by far, the lowest mintage in the whole series. An MS66 specimen sold in 2007 for the impressive amount of $149,500.
- 1888 with 8 over 7 - Many numismatists believe that the master hub for the 1887 cent was used for the minting of the 1888 issue. That is because a lump of the number “7” is visible on top and on the bottom of the number “8”, the last digit of the mint year. This is the rarest variety of the Indian Head cents and has realized prices over $70,000 at auctions.
- 1909-S - The year 1909 marked the last mintage of the Indian Head cent. A little less than 14,800,000 were minted that year. As it is the final issue of the series, it is only natural that collectors would be immensely drawn to it. But that is especially true for the specimens struck in the San Francisco Mint. Only 309,000 Indian Head cents were minted with the San Francisco mint mark and a few of them have survived the 20th century. A bidder purchased one MS67 specimen for $97,750 in 2006.
If you are one of the lucky people who came across one of these rare finds, take it to your trusted coin dealer or coin authenticator to make sure it is the real thing and not a counterfeit.
The Introduction of Wheat Pennies
1909 was the final mintage of the Indian Head Penny as it was replaced for the Lincoln cent (which came to be known as the Lincoln wheat penny). As that was the centennial year of late president Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the US Mint ordered a new design for the cent in his honor. The original plan was to have American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens create the new designs. He sadly passed away before submitting them. Therefore, the US Mint employed the Litvak-American sculptor Victor David Brenner to work on them.
Brenner designed both the obverse and the original reverse. The obverse depicted a portrait of the late president facing right (from the viewer’s perspective) with the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” inscribed on the top rim, and the word “LIBERTY”, behind his neck. The mint year was placed in front of the president’s chest.
The reverse showed the denomination on top of the country’s name at the center of the coin, in between two stalks of wheat, hence the name Lincoln wheat cent. Above the denomination is the inscription “E PLURIBUS UNUM”
The Lincoln Penny portrayed a variety of designs on its reverse throughout the years and definitely won the hearts of the general American public, but it has not really overshadowed the prize and esteem attributed to the Indian Head cent by numismatists and collectors alike.