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Indian Head cent straddles centuries

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The very first coin I ever purchased was a 1907 Indian Head cent. This small copper coin was well worn, good condition, and had evidently done the job it was created to do – go out and circulate.  Indian cents turned up in change as late as the 1950s, and I have heard of a few showing up in bank rolls.

The Indian cent was minted for 50 years from 1859 to 1909 and then replaced by the familiar Lincoln cent. Many collectors enjoy the Indian cent series for its beauty, its history, and the challenge of putting together a choice set.

The first year coin of 1859 is a one-year type coin. While the obverse stayed pretty much the same throughout the length of the series, the first reverse showed a laurel wreath and no shield.  The obverse showed a Liberty head wearing an Indian headdress; technically, this is not a depiction of a Native American.

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The 1859 Indian cents are popular with cent collectors, type collectors and those who enjoy saving first-year coins. Struck in copper-nickel, these “white cents” command good, if not outrageous prices. Even proof specimens can be obtained for a fairly reasonable cost.

The 1860 Indian Head cents, still made in copper-nickel, showed a definite design change. The wreath on the reverse was changed to an oak wreath, a motif that stayed until the end of the series.  A shield is atop the wreath.

The copper-nickel composition continued until 1864, when the cents were struck in bronze. The 1864 cents are found in both copper-nickel and bronze, with the bronze a bit more common.
Also, in 1864, the designer’s initial “L” was added to the ribbon on the Indian’s neck. James B. Longacre designed the Indian cent. There is a legend that he was inspired to create this coin when his daughter, Sarah, wore an Indian headdress; this is probably just a legend.  Other subtle differences were made to the obverse bust.

Many varieties are found throughout the Indian cent set. Besides the 1864 cents in two different metals, and bronze cents with and without the initial “L,” the 1873 coins come with closed and open 3 varieties. Some 1873 cents have a doubled “Liberty” on the Indian’s headband.  Indian cents of the early 1870s show both a bold and a shallow “N” in the word “cent” on the reverse.  A famous overdate, the 1888/7, was discovered decades ago, and caused much excitement – and banner headlines in hobby publications – when it was found. Only a few more have shown up, years later. An overdate of 1869/9 also exists. There are many other varieties to be found and collected by serious Indian cent specialists.

The scarcest date in the set is the 1877. Long popular with collectors, its low mintage of 852,500 made it a hard- to-obtain-coin from its beginning. This coin was pictured on a U.S. postage stamp of 1977, one of a few coins depicted on U.S. stamps. Proofs were also struck with this date for the connoisseur.

Other scarce coins include the 1909-S, 1871 and 1872.  The 1909 coin minted at San Francisco has always been in demand due to its last-year of issue status, but the cents of the early 1870s are not as popular.  Indian cent fans know of the scarcity of these pieces, with or without varieties.  Prices are good, but not as high as a larger coin of a more popular series of equal scarcity would be worth. 

The first branch mint cent was struck in 1908, It was an Indian cent struck in San Francisco. A low mintage of just over one million makes this coin scarce and in good demand, for its historical significance.

All Indian cents were stuck in Philadelphia, except for the 1908-S and 1909-S. Collectors who want to avoid the expense, and the time in putting together a complete set, may consider a 20th century set, with or without the San Francisco issues. The coins could be found in high grades without a big cash outlay, and make a wonderful set. A proof Indian cent set of the later years would be a great set to assemble and display. Specimens in Proof-63 can be found for about $200 each – not a bad price for a proof coin over 100 years old.

Indian cent collectors need a good eye if they want a nice collection in high grade. Circulated sets have their own appeal, but a specialist may want a set of Indian cents in Mint State and proof.  Many Indian cents have been cleaned and show an unattractive orange color. Some show carbon spots, or staining. Some are just plain ugly, discolored from cleaning or general wear. Collectors who are fussy about condition may have to look at many Indian cents to find one that is just right for his set. Lovely original coins, spot-free and problem-free, make a beautiful set that will delight any collector, and be worth much more in the long run.

Some Indian cents show a “woodgrain” effect, and these coins, too, are attractive and sought after by Indian cent specialists. 

Look through many Indian cents, circulated, almost uncirculated, slabbed and raw, and get a real feel for the series.  Note the differences in wear, the color of the metal, the way a real Mint State coin should look. Also note the way a cleaned or polished coin looks. Studying this series makes you a better buyer and a better collector. Doing your homework in the Indian cent series can pay off, and reward you with a wonderful collection.

Need a bigger challenge? Look at the great number of pattern Indian cents that were struck in the 1850s. The 1858 Indian cent, and the 1859 with the design used in 1860, are favorites with Indian cent specialists. But there are also other interesting patterns. There is one pattern Indian cent with no date. One bears the Flying Eagle design on its reverse, and still another, the Indian head on both sides. Still another shows a more ornate shield on the reverse. And there are pattern Indian cents with the reverse wreath used on the Flying Eagle cent.

Indian cents have been a favorite with collectors for a long time. The coin is lovely and historical, bears a very American design and can be collected in a number of different ways. Building an Indian cent set is fun, worthwhile, and interesting; the astute collector who takes his time to learn and enjoy the series can end up with a set any numismatist would be proud to own.

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