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Indian Cents Gave Boost to Collectors
By R.W. Julian, Numismatic News
June 05, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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After World War II, when numismatics again became a national hobby, among the first coins sought after by the new collectors were the tried and true Indian Head cents. Although only a well-worn few could still be found in circulation, many families had saved such coins in the 1920s and 1930s when they began to disappear from daily use.

Because of these family accumulations it was often easy in the late 1940s to find a good selection of Indian Head dates going back to the time of the Civil War. Of course certain years were always rare, such as the 1877, but on the whole a fair number of different pieces could be found without too much trouble.

The story of the Indian Head cent begins, in some ways, during the late 1840s and early 1850s. The old large cent was still being struck but the price of copper had risen to the point that in some years, such as 1851, the Mint sometimes lost money on such coinage. The problem gave rise to a number of pattern coins in various alloys but it was not until 1856 that Mint Director James Ross Snowden hit upon what he thought was the perfect solution.

Snowden believed that an alloy of 12 percent nickel and 88 percent copper was ideal for the new cent coin he had in mind. Chief Engraver James B. Longacre then set out to create a pair of dies made to Snowden’s careful instructions. The obverse was to copy the old Gobrecht flying eagle from the reverse of 1836-1839 silver dollar coinage. The eagle was to fly level, however, rather than upwards as on the original dollars.

For the reverse Snowden and Longacre chose a wreath enclosing the simple denomination ONE CENT. The wreath was in low relief to enable the coining presses to bring up the design as much as possible.

A few hundred 1856 Flying Eagle cents were distributed to members of Congress, newspaper editors, and bankers. These pieces were meant to influence legislation then before Congress. Whatever the idea, the scheme worked and Congress duly passed the enabling legislation. The large cent was no more and the copper-nickel Flying Eagle cent was the order of the day.

More than 40 million Flying Eagle cents were coined in 1857 and 1858 but all was not well, despite the heavy mintages. The design was not quite perfect and coining presses of the day were often unable to bring up the design on the highest points. In addition so many pieces were made that they flooded the marketplaces and became an irritation to the smaller merchants.

Director Snowden thought that his cent coin deserved better and asked Chief Engraver Longacre to find an alternate design thatwould not only strike up better but would be popular with all classes of people. Longacre began to prepare new pattern dies for the cent in the fall of 1858.

At first Snowden thought that a portrait of Columbus might be appropriate but later decided that a Caucasian head in an Indian headdress would look better. The long-standing numismatic rumor that Longacre used his young daughter as a model is not true and the profile in fact is quite similar to that used on some of the new coins of the 1850s, such as the $3 gold piece of 1854. The original source for the bust was a plaster copy, in a local museum, of an antique statue of Venus.

Snowden made most of the pattern cents available, in a set of 12, for a small fee to collectors, both in Philadelphia and the rest of the country. This was the first time that pattern coins had been openly sold. For one or two of the designs a fair number of extra pieces were made, leading to the erroneous conclusion among some researchers that Indian Head cent coinage actually began in 1858. It did not, in fact, begin until January 1859.

By late in 1858 the various patterns by Longacre had been carefully studied by Director Snowden, who also consulted leading artists and art critics in Philadelphia. There was a consensus by most of those involved that a particular design was the best.

With the backing of the group that had examined the various pattern pieces, Snowden sent the chosen one to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb in Washington for his approval. Cobb did approve the design in short order, considering it very well done, but would have also shown the pattern piece to President James Buchanan for his approval. The approval from Washington arrived in Philadelphia in mid December 1858, allowing Snowden time to prepare for the new coinage in early January 1859.

Once the new cents reached circulation there was strong demand from the public. The coinage of cents topped 36 million pieces in 1859, which was not all that far from the 42 million coined in the two preceding years, 1857 and 1858. Once more a multitude of cents flooded the marketplace, to the irritation of shopkeepers and bankers.

After several months of coinage in 1859 Snowden took a close look at the design and decided that it lacked something on the reverse, namely a shield at the top of the wreath. Longacre was directed to correct this oversight and Snowden obtained the necessary permission from the Treasury. There would be no further changes of substance through the end of the Indian Head series in 1909.

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The heavy coinage of 1859, added to those struck in 1857-1858, could not be sustained as there was not an unlimited demand for such coins. In 1860 mintage fell to just over 20 million, but 1861 would drop even further, to only 10 million. In all, through the end of 1861, more than 100 million of the “nickels,” as they were called by the public in those days, had been made and one would think that this would have been a sufficient number. To the surprise of just about everyone, however, it would not even come close to meeting the needs of the next few years.

The Civil War erupted in April 1861 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. As both sides felt that the war would be a short one, at first the currency was little touched by hoarding. Within a short time, however, the lack of gold and silver coins in the South began to be felt and that region soon went to paper for its daily marketplace needs.

In the North complacency was the order of the day as the public thought that the war would soon be over and the nation reunited without much bloodshed. This view remained in place through most of 1861 despite a series of defeats at the hands of the Confederate armies. By the late fall of 1861, however, cracks in the Northern façade began to appear, culminating in a run on the banks in late December, when every available gold coin was hoarded. The turn of the silver coins came in June 1862 and now there was only cent coins for the public to use in the marketplace. The government soon responded by printing Fractional Currency, with values as low as three cents. Except for the lowly cent, for all practical purposes the North had now joined the South by having a paper money regime in place.

With the hoarding of gold in late December 1861 the handwriting was on the wall and Mint Director James Pollock, in office since the preceding May, ordered an immediate increase in cent coinage. More than 28 million pieces were issued in 1862, followed by an even larger 50 million the following year. Some no doubt thought that this heavier coinage, accompanied by those struck before 1862, would be sufficient but it was not.

Despite the heavy coinage in 1862, which was eclipsed by only that of 1859, matters soon got worse. By the summer of 1862 the public had also begun to hoard even the copper-nickel cents, which made little economic sense because the intrinsic value of each coin was well below the face value.

Pollock informed the Treasury that he could strike upwards of 60 million cents per year if he could be assured of a steady supply of nickel. Copper was not a problem, supplies being abundant, but much of the nickel had to be imported and there a growing demand for this metal from other countries. The Pennsylvania mines of Joseph Wharton provided a certain part of the needs but could not furnish enough for the 60 million pieces.

In April 1862, due to Pollock’s increased coinage, the Mint had on hand more than one million cents for ready distribution. During the summer, as cent hoarding dramatically increased, the Mint reserves fell to almost nothing. On Aug. 31, 1862, for example, a mere 368 pieces were on hand.

By late in 1862 applicants for cent coins were being told that that there would be a long wait before their orders, usually limited to 5,000 pieces, would be filled. In most cases the wait was more than six months, meaning that the system had begun to break down. The marketplace had to have small coins.

Entrepreneurs came to the rescue. Private mints in various places began to strike bronze and copper tokens that passed for a cent. Some were issued with the name of a merchant while other were called Patriotics because both sides had messages relating to the survival of the Union. Tens of millions of these pieces were produced and most stayed in circulation.

Mint Director Pollock saw the success of the Civil War tokens, as they are now called, and suggested that the government adopt bronze as the cent alloy. The copper, tin, and zinc components were easily and cheaply obtained and the Mint would be able to strike really large numbers of cent pieces for the public.

The proposal by Pollock for a bronze cent coinage would have quickly succeeded except for one annoying problem, in the person of mine owner Joseph Wharton. The latter saw his lucrative nickel sales going away and was less than pleased at the prospect. Wharton soon used every device at his command, including friendly Congressmen, to defeat any thoughts of a bronze cent coinage.

Director Pollock was well aware of the roadblocks that were sure to come from Wharton and asked Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase to do whatever was necessary to solve the coinage problems. Chase wavered but he was also under pressure from friends of Wharton and for some time simply did nothing except to give lip service to both sides.

In an effort to break the logjam Pollock offered to keep the copper-nickel cent, though at a lesser weight, and to introduce a two-cent piece of bronze. At first Wharton considered this suggestion but in the end decided to fight for status quo.

In an unexpected move, Treasury Secretary Chase did an about-face and introduced Pollock’s bill for a bronze cent and two-cent piece with full backing from the Lincoln Administration. There were spirited debates in the House of Representatives, where Wharton’s supporters were the strongest, but in the end – April 22, 1864 – Pollock carried the day and got his bronze coins.

Within a short time the nickel metal on hand at the Mint had run out and bronze coinage commenced. By the end of 1864 the Mint had coined nearly 40 million of the new bronze cents accompanied by another 20 million two-cent pieces. Not all of the planchets were made in the Mint, however, as private companies furnished a large number of blanks due to the urgency in getting the new coins to the public.

Once the public realized that an unlimited number of new bronze cents would soon be available the old copper-nickel coins came out of hiding and entered the marketplace. Director Pollock knew, however, that conditions could change overnight, especially if the string of Union military victories came to a sudden end, and stepped up coinage in the opening months of 1865 as well. More than 35 million cents were thus coined in the final year of the war. The shortage of cents was at an end.

The same dies were used in May 1864 for the new bronze cents as had been employed for the earlier copper-nickel pieces but in the latter part of that year Chief Engraver Longacre prepared a new obverse in which his initial (L) appears on a ribbon behind the head. These are somewhat scarcer than the regular issues of earlier in the year but not all that difficult to find for a collection.

Post-war coinage of cents showed a dramatic drop. Fewer than 10 million Indian Head cents were coined in 1866 and the numbers showed a decline over the next several years until less than 4 million were minted in 1871.

In 1873 the Treasury was finally able to put minor silver coins back into daily use, thus starting the process of getting rid of the paper Fractional Currency, but also creating a demand for cent pieces. The mintage for 1873 was well above that for 1872 and continued to be strong until 1876 when mintage finally caught up with demand.

Towards the end of 1876 minor coins, in particular the cent, began to be sent by banks to the Treasury as they were overflowing with such pieces. The three and five-cent copper-nickel coins were interdicted in 1876, leading to no coinage for either denomination in 1877 and 1878. The cent problem came a bit later but at the end of January 1877 the Treasury halted cent coinage as well; it did not resume until midway into 1878.

That only 850,000 cents were struck in early 1877 has long made this coin a key to completing a date set. There are other years that vary from scarce to rare, especially in the early 1870s, but the 1877 is by far the most difficult to find. A specimen in VF or better will cost in the vicinity of $2,000 or more.

After 1880 most dates are fairly common with isolated exceptions. There were few changes on the dies, the best known and most obvious being in 1887 when the master hub for the obverse was redone and the letters have slightly different spacing and relationship to the Indian Head.

In 1908 and 1909 the San Francisco Mint struck a limited number of cent coins with the 1909 version being one of the more difficult issues to obtain in decent condition. Although the mintage is much smaller than that of 1877, however, there were more collectors around in 1909 and nearby years so many more were taken from circulation than otherwise would have been the case in 1877.

The last Indian head cents were coined in 1909 and after that only the dedicated collector was left to appreciate this fine series of coins.

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