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Six Years, Six Designs, Three Alloys – When We Changed Cents

Collectors of early United States large cents tend to fall in love with the beauty of the designs, but also tend to have to save up for meaningful purchases. The earliest large cents of a brand new United States Mint can be very expensive for someone just breaking into the field. But the humble one-cent coin we still use today has undergone some changes in the past that qualify as both amazing and intriguing, as well as cost saving. Let’s peer into a couple of specific times in our history when there was a lot going on with our one-cent coins.

1857 Flying Eagle cent (All images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

1857 Flying Eagle cent (All images courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

Not 1856, but 1857

Most numismatic reference books state that 1856 is the first year of issue of the Flying Eagle design for the new, small-sized cent. Those listings tend to downplay the fact that the roughly two thousand minted were merely trial pieces, and not a coin made for circulation. Two thousand of any coin was simply too few to be of any real use in the mid-1800’s. After all, the 1850 United States Census recorded more than 23 million people living in the nation at the time. But in 1857, when over 17.4 million of the Flying Eagle cents were minted? Yes, that qualifies as a year when the new, smaller coins were meant to be used.

Only the 1857 and 1858 Flying Eagle cents are really collectible, which makes for very quick going if we want a full set. Depending on how much you wish to spend, $100 can land a piece that shows some wear, but not a horrid amount. But there is another 1857 cent we might want to try to gather as well, the last of the Coronet Head large cents.

1820 Coronet Head large cent. These types were the last to be made of all copper.

1820 Coronet Head large cent. These types were the last to be made of all copper.

Even though the Mint realized by 1856 that the price of copper was high enough that cents would need to be reduced in size, there was still a decent-sized production of large cents in 1857. The official total of 333,546 makes them a key to the series today, simply because previous years saw mintages in the millions. But this production level is high enough that any collector who wants one can get one. Plus, based on the number of worn 1857’s available, it seems that large cents circulated right up to their final moment. Additionally, this would be the last of the cents made of all copper. Copper-nickel alloys had arrived with the Flying Eagles.

1859 Indian Head cent

1859 Indian Head cent

1859

The Flying Eagle cent design flew away pretty quickly, to be replaced by the Indian Head design in 1859. The Mint may have been in overdrive that year, managing to produce 36.4 million of them in the new copper-nickel alloy. They can be expensive if we want to hunt down a high end, mint state piece. But for the most part they are affordable.

The Indian Head cents underwent changes such as the addition of the shield and the switch to the oak wreath on the reverse in 1860.

The Indian Head cents underwent changes such as the addition of the shield and the switch to the oak wreath on the reverse in 1860.

1860

As with several other United States coins, there were some changes in the Indian Head cents right at the beginning. The 1859 becomes a one-year type coin because the wreath on the reverse was changed completely in 1860. One thing that did not change was the impressive number of Indian Heads that were produced annually. Large Mint outputs back then tend to mean good prices today.

Looking from our present day point of view, from 1856 to 1860 we had four different cent designs, and two different alloys. A person might have fun simply trying to assemble a good looking quartet from this time of change.

These two cents from 1864 show the difference between the two types minted that year, the first having the old composition, the second having the newer alloy and the added “L” in the ribbon.

These two cents from 1864 show the difference between the two types minted that year, the first having the old composition, the second having the newer alloy and the added “L” in the ribbon.

1864

The Indian Head cent design had become well established by 1864, yet there was one more serious change that the series would see. In this year the alloy was changed to one of copper with a small percentage of tin and zinc – generally referred to as bronze cents. This means that there are two different major varieties for the year. The older composition, weighing in at 4.67 grams, saw a good-sized mintage of over 13.7 million cents. But the newer alloy, resulting in cents weighing in at 3.11 grams, saw an even bigger output of roughly 39.2 million pieces. To add even more to this, some of the bronze issue had an “L” added to the ribbon in the figure’s headdress, giving us a “with L” and a “without L” possibility. This is the designer, Mr. Longacre’s, initial. The Indian Head cent was off and running in 1864, but there are definitely some interesting big and little changes in these early years of issue.

1909 s IH
A 1909-S Indian Head cent and a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.

A 1909-S Indian Head cent and a 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent.

1909

As with any series of coins, the Indian Head cents saw ups and downs in Mint production from 1859 all the way to 1909, and set at least one record in those years. In 1907 the official Mint tally reached 108,137,143 cents, the first time the 100-million mark had been surpassed. But the biggest change came in 1909.

Most collectors are aware that 1909 was the final year of the Indian Head cent and the first of the Lincoln cent, the obverse design of which we still use today. It may not be as well remembered though that 1909 was only the second year in which a branch Mint produced any cents at all. In 1908, the branch Mint facility in San Francisco produced more than a million Indian Head cents, and in 1909 added 309K more. In 1909, the folks in the City by the Bay added a further 1.8 million cents, and on top of that, 484K Lincoln cents with the well-known VDB on the base of the reverse. All in all, 1909 was a busy year for our little, one-cent coin.

As with the change from large cents to small, we could aspire to assemble a set of just the 1909’s. The problem children within this bunch, as it were, are going to be the Indian Head 1909-S, and the Lincoln 1909-S VDB. We’ll not argue about whether or not these two pieces are overvalued. Rather we can comment that the 1909 Indian Head, and the 1909 and 1909-VDB Lincoln cents will make for much more palatable buys, especially if we shoot for them in mint state grades.

Last, but not least, 1907

Okay, we’ll admit we have jumped out of order at this point, at least when it comes to following the timeline. But something amazing happened in 1907 besides the huge output of Indian Head cents – almost. Many collectors are aware that famed sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens redesigned the double eagle and the eagle in 1907, and many admirers of his designs know the story of how President Teddy Roosevelt asked that St. Gaudens use his talents to redesign the entire line up of U.S. coinage to bring it into line with the classic beauty that Roosevelt perceived to be so wonderfully evident in the coins of the ancient Greek city-states. What seems to be less well known or remembered is that before his death on August 3rd, 1907 the artist had also produced a design for the one-cent piece. He had developed his idea to the point where plasters existed. The next step might have been some trial pieces in copper, just to see how they looked as a working coin. But those apparently never came to be, leaving us with a fascinating take on what might have been.

Now, all this work into a new one-cent coin might qualify as an interesting footnote in history, except for one very important development. The design has indeed been struck. No, there is not some lost series of one-cent pieces made in copper in the design of Augustus St. Gaudens – nothing like a fabled, never-seen 1964 Peace dollar. But there is on the market a two-ounce silver round, produced by a private mint, utilizing the obverse St. Gaudens design, and employing a classic-looking reverse, but one that states the weight of the silver. While such an item is more properly bullion than it is a coin, it is also a fantastic way for a collector to add a one-cent design to his or her collection that most folks will not have, and that many will not know about.

Overall?

Our Lincoln cent has seen some interesting changes beyond those we have just discussed, including the metal changes in 1943 and in 1982. But we have seen that in the 1859 – 1864 time frame, and again from 1907 – 1909 there were some landmarks changes in how we made our one-cent pieces. Focusing a collection on these times can be a wonderful way to delve deeply into our hobby.