Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)

Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)

The United States Mint was founded in Philadelphia, Penn., in 1792 and operated solely there for some time. However, the expansive nature of the early United States made new facilities necessary for efficient storage and shipping. With each new facility, a new identifying mintmark came into being. Each coin would now bear a tiny indicator of where it was struck. Throughout its venerable history, the U.S. Mint has produced myriad coins, but the first and still among the most important coins produced in our nation is the single cent, commonly called a penny. Pennies have always been in general circulation and are among the longest-lasting types of coins produced by the mint.

Of all the pennies ever produced, the Indian Head style is one of the most popular among coin collectors. These coins debuted in the years prior to the Civil War and were continued until shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Let us examine the attributes of this coin that maintain its popularity among contemporary collectors.

History of the Indian Head Penny

We can trace the origins of the Indian Head Penny back to the Large Cent. Large Cent coins were first minted in 1793 but faced immediate public dissatisfaction due to the U.S. law barring the use of any metal other than Silver and Gold as legal tender. Because of this, Large Cents were not able to be used to pay taxes or any other government payment. Shopkeepers or tradespeople could refuse them as payment at any time. Large Cents were simply unreliable and inconvenient.

By the middle of the 19th century, fluctuations in the price of copper compelled the U.S. Mint to reduce the size of their pennies, as Large Cents were nearly the same size as a modern Half Dollar, and also to seek metal compositions other than pure copper. This need drove the mint to develop the Flying Eagle Penny, which was struck only from 1856-1858. This coin differed from previous pennies in that its metal content was less than 90% copper. Unfortunately, these coins quickly succumbed to design flaws and had to be replaced. Their replacement was the iconic Indian Head Penny, which was launched on the market in 1859.

Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)

Indian Head Penny Design

The design of the Indian Head Penny was conceived by James Longacre, the acting engraver of the United States Mint. In a letter to United States Mint Director James Snowden, Longacre argued in favor of his new design, writing:

“From the copper shores of Lake Superior to the Silver mountains of Potosi from the Ojibwa to the Aramanian, the feathered tiara is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic. Nor is there anything in its decorative character, repulsive to the association of Liberty … It is more appropriate than the Phrygian cap, the emblem rather of the emancipated slave than of the independent freeman, of those who are able to say “we were never in bondage to any man”. I regard then this emblem of America as a proper and well-defined portion of our national inheritance; and having now the opportunity of consecrating it as a memorial of Liberty, ‘our Liberty’, American Liberty; why not use it? One more graceful can scarcely be devised. We have only to determine that it shall be appropriate, and all the world outside of us cannot wrest it from us.”


Indian Head Penny Value

For collectors, the Indian Head Penny represents great historical significance of its era. The first years of the Indian Head’s production fell just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and collectors view this coin as a tangible part of American coin history. Due to this, you will find some coins produced in the first few years of the Indian Head Cent’s existence now command a much higher premium than other editions.

Indian Head Pennies Historic Coin Value

Another factor adding to the popularity of these coins is their age. It is rare for general circulation coins to survive more than 100 years, especially in excellent condition. It is easy to understand why these pieces pique the interest of coin collectors. Of course, the popularity of Indian Heads varies from mintage to mintage. While some editions are hard to find, others are abundant. Generally, the scarcest Indian Heads are those struck during the first years of production. These are the coins that are not only the most sought after, they are also the most expensive.

Indian Head Penny Key Dates

Designed by James B. Longacre, Indian Head Cents have six key dates that that are notable to collectors. While the series began production in 1859, the first variety to be considered key today is the 1864-L. The “L” mintmark on this coin refers to the designer’s last name, rather than the production location. Other important dates for the Indian Head Cents series include 1869, 1872, and 1877. While millions of coins were produced during these years, examples in Very Fine condition or higher are incredibly rare. After the turn of the 20th Century, the 1908-S struck from 95 percent Copper is the first date to be thought of as key by numismatists. Coins made by the San Francisco Mint in 1909 are also valuable to collectors. Indian Head Penny key dates include:

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