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Indian Head cent gave hobby boost
By R.W. Julian
September 13, 2017

When coin collecting became a national hobby in the 1850s it was due to the withdrawal of the old copper cents and half cents. Ordinary citizens enjoyed finding all of the different dates that could be obtained.

In the 1920s and early 1930s numismatics was not exactly a thriving matter but then the 1850s came back in a new way. By the mid-1930s the Indian Head cent was rapidly disappearing from daily use and history repeated itself. Many beginning collectors went out of their way to find as many Indian Head cent dates as possible. There was a lull during World War II but shortly afterwards the hobby of coin collecting took off, never to look back.

If there is a single coin that deserves to be called “classic,” it would have to be the Indian Head cent of 1859-1909. It is a coinage with a sense of history and well worth the attention of dedicated numismatists.

It all began in the early 1850s when the increased price of copper created serious problems for the old large cents and half cents. In 1851 the government even occasionally lost money on the copper coinage due to the rising price of the metal.

While copper prices did retreat in 1852, it was clear that something would have to be done in the near future. Mint officials went to great lengths from 1854 to 1856 to search out acceptable metallic substitutes for the copper cent; no one even considered the half cent, which was little used by the public anyway.

Someone remembered Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger, who in the 1830s had tried to interest the government in using his German Silver alloy, which contained nickel, for small coinage. At that time the Mint ignored his suggestions, but the current problem demanded that all available metals be considered.

At length, in 1856, Mint Director James Ross Snowden decided that a combination of 12 percent nickel and 88 percent copper was the best choice. The director suggested that the new coins weigh 72 grains (4.67 grams), giving the government a handsome profit.

Snowden assigned Chief Engraver James B. Longacre the task of creating a design for the new cent. For the obverse Snowden asked Longacre to copy the famous Gobrecht Flying Eagle reverse from the 1830s while the reverse was to have a wreath symbolic of American agriculture. Longacre succeeded well at both tasks and collectors today are generally agreed that his Flying Eagle cent is a coin of distinction.

The first Flying Eagle cents were coined for circulation in 1857, though there had been pattern pieces struck in 1856. The Mint struck a considerable number of these new cents in 1857 and 1858, much to the delight of the public, who were tired of the old and bulky copper cents.

Public acceptance of the new coin was not only good, but a little too good to suit merchants. They were now inundated with these new cents. There were soon protests to the Treasury about the large number of coins that seemed to be everywhere. Some citizens even took a perverse delight in paying bills with a handful of “nickels,” as they were now called, much to the annoyance of shopkeepers.

Complaints multiplied to the point that Director Snowden was worried that he would have to coin less cents. He thought that perhaps new artwork would prop up flagging interest and assigned Longacre the task of redesigning the copper-nickel cent

The chief engraver was allowed to use his own imagination in coming up with a Liberty head that would satisfy everyone. His choice was a Caucasian head in an Indian war bonnet. The profile was taken from a plaster copy (then in a Philadelphia museum) of a statue of Venus. The engraver had already used this same head on several gold coins, including the 1849 double eagle

A story later arose that Longacre had been visited by an Indian delegation at his Philadelphia home. According to the tale one of the chiefs placed his bonnet on Longacre’s young daughter and the famous head of Liberty resulted. Most numismatists, however, place little credit in the story.

Towards the latter part of 1858 Snowden was satisfied with the new Longacre design and ordered dies prepared and patterns struck for examination. Snowden then sent samples to Washington, where Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb approved the new design for coinage beginning in January 1859.

Several hundred samples of the 1858 pattern were struck and rather widely distributed in order to acquaint the public with the new design. Some coin dealers claim that this is a “prototype issue” which was put into circulation, but this is not correct. All of these 1858s are patterns.

(Actually, there are a series of patterns dated 1858 with various obverse and reverse combinations. The Indian head is the same but there are several varieties of wreaths. Sets of 12 patterns were sold to collectors for a nominal sum, the profits being used to improve the national collection of coins and medals.)

Although the merchants and banks were hardly pleased with the large number of Flying Eagle cents that had been issued in 1857 and 1858, nevertheless the public took to the new cents just as they had to the old. Mintage of cents in 1859 was an amazing 36 million, which compared favorably to the 42 million struck in the preceding two years.

The reverse of the new 1859 cent was found to lack something and Longacre was ordered to add a national shield at the top and this was done at the beginning of 1860. The new reverse design was a clear improvement and there were to be no further design changes through the end of the series in 1909.

Coinage in 1860 and 1861 showed a sharp decrease from 1859. The large numbers that had been struck to date (nearly 80 million in three years) finally caught up with demand. By 1861 the annual total had fallen to just over 10 million, a great change from two years earlier.

Opening shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in April 1861 were to prove the beginning of the end for the copper-nickel cent, though the death rattles lasted for nearly three years. At first, the public hoarded only gold coins but this was soon followed by the silver. All precious-metal coinage was gone from public use by the summer of 1862, leaving only the lowly Indian Head cent as coinage for the public.

A new director, James Pollock, who took office in May 1861, saw what was coming and did everything in his power to facilitate the mintage of cents. There was a strong increase for 1862 followed by a heavy coinage of 50 million pieces in 1863. The latter date is the commonest copper-nickel cent available to the collector.

By the late summer of 1862 the public had begun to hoard cents as well. This was unexpected because the intrinsic value of the cent never came close to a cent; the large-scale hoarding baffled contemporaries. This came at a time when Pollock was having trouble obtaining enough nickel for the coinage.

Had the Mint been able to get all the nickel that was required, it could have struck in excess of 60 million cents per year. All of the nickel had to be imported, however, and those sources were not able to supply enough nickel.

As late as April 1862 the Mint still had on hand more than a million cents for public distribution. Then the roof fell in and everybody seemed to want cents immediately. On Aug. 31 the Mint was down to a reserve supply of only 368 pieces plus whatever was being struck daily. It was then but a short time before customers were told that there would be a lengthy wait before their coins were sent. With luck, an applicant could get $50 worth of cents in six months.

By the summer of 1863 Pollock had come to the decision that the copper-nickel combination could no longer be used for cent coinage. He suggested that the new French bronze alloy be used instead. Made of 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc, it had good wearing qualities as well as being easily coined.

The idea for bronze cents was not exactly new to the public. Beginning in late 1862 private minters issued tokens made out of copper or bronze but weighing far less than the government cent. It was not lost on Pollock that these “coins” circulated while his did not. By the summer of 1863 large numbers of these private tokens were being made. (Modern collectors call them Civil War tokens.)

Pollock now ran into an unexpected problem. Joseph Wharton owned a nickel mine in Pennsylvania and had just begun to furnish high-quality nickel to the Mint. When Wharton learned of the plan to drop nickel from the coinage, he was less than pleased. He had invested large sums in his new nickel works and did not intend to give up without a fight. For the next several months his Congressional supporters blocked efforts to substitute French bronze for the copper-nickel alloy.

Pollock was soon badgering Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who would decide what recommendation, if any, went to Congress. There began a struggle between the supporters of Pollock on one hand and Wharton on the other. Pollock had many influential friends but he sensed a losing battle and suggested a compromise to the Wharton forces: copper-nickel cents of a reduced weight would be kept but a two-cent piece of bronze would also be coined.

Treasury Secretary Chase, who had been marking time, abruptly decided that the copper-nickel alloy would have to go and both coins would be of bronze. Pollock had won his victory within the Administration and President Lincoln now urged Congress to adopt the new coinage metals. The Administration soon triumphed and the law was approved in April 1864.

Within a few weeks the nickel on hand had run out and the Mint began coining the new bronze cents and two-cent pieces. By the end of the year nearly 40 million bronze cents had been made as well as 20 million two-cent pieces. The Mint had defeated the coin shortage and the old hoarded copper-nickel cents now came out of hiding.

Most of the 1864 cents used the same dies as had the earlier copper-nickel coins of that year, but later on (perhaps November) the dies were modified so that the new cents would strike up better. On these dies Longacre added the initial L on the back of the neck.

Cent coinage was equally heavy in 1865 (35 million) but fell off rapidly towards the end of the year. By 1871 the annual total had dropped to under 4 million pieces.

In 1873 the government was finally able to begin putting silver coins back into circulation for the first time since 1862. This created an increased demand for small coins, especially the cent, and mintage in 1873 was considerably higher than in 1872.

The 1873 cent has an interesting variety that used to be more popular than it is today. The open and closed “3,” which were popularized by Harry X Boosel, were the result of Chief Coiner A. Loudon Snowden complaining that the figure “3” looked like an “8” and ought to be changed. It was and several denominations have an open and closed figure “3”  for 1873.

Mintage of the cent dropped sharply in 1876 as public demand lessened. In early 1877, after only 852,500 cents had been struck in January, coinage was stopped by the Treasury. The 1873 law had given the government this authority whenever the Subtreasuries had too many pieces of a given denomination. Nickel coinage (both five and three cent) had been stopped the year before, 1876.

The 1877 proof cent is something of a special case as the mintage has consistently been underestimated. In 1877 the collector had the choice of buying a silver proof set (which contained the minor coins) or a “nickel” set with only the three smallest coins. The silver proof set sales are known: 510. The number of nickel sets is not but has been estimated at about 400 based on records preserved at the National Archives.

It is therefore evident that the true mintage figure for the 1877 proof cent is about 900. Whatever the exact mintage, gem proofs do bring high prices. Because not all that many 1877 cents were saved in uncirculated, value in MS–65 is much higher than in proof.

The 1877 cent has long been famous as the great rarity of the series. It is not actually rare in real terms, but in a relative sense as there are too many collectors chasing too few coins.

Some collectors have wondered why a mintage of less than 6 million (for 1878) would have about the same value as the 10 million of 1866-1868. The answer is, of course, that there were more collectors in the 1880s than in the 1870s and better specimens were saved for posterity.

There was a minor obverse hub change in 1887. For 1859-1886 the final feather points between I and C of AMERICA; in the middle of 1887 this was changed to the feather pointing between the C and A. Values are about the same for the two varieties.

For dates after 1895 (and even several before that) rolls of circulated coins may be purchased from dealers. The date 1907 is very common and it would be easy to purchase thousands of pieces of this date should there ever be a call for so many. Other surrounding dates are not far behind in ease of acquisition.

In 1908 increased demand from the West for cents induced the Treasury to plan mintages of minor coins at Denver and San Francisco. For the Indian Head cent only San Francisco would succeed and Denver had to wait for the Lincoln cent in 1910. The 1908-S and 1909-S Indian Head cents were saved by collectors at the time of issue, which has held the value down.

Indian Head cents continued to circulate widely in the United States for many years after 1909 and it was not until the 1920s that they begin to leave the marketplace for good. By the mid-1940s virtually all were gone. After that, only the dedicated numismatist was left to appreciate a coin that had once served the nation well.

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On September 16, 2017 Russell Doughty said
The design change occurred in mid 1886, not 1887.


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