The 1864-L Indian Head Cent

The United States first minted one-cent coins back in 1793. The coins minted were called Large Cents, because, due to their size, they contained one cent’s worth of pure Copper. These were minted until 1857, when the price of Copper increased and a smaller cent was designed and struck.

Given the mission of redesigning the one-cent piece, U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre created a design with an American eagle in flight.  Flying Eagle cents were first struck in 1856, with 2,000 struck as a pattern to see how well the design would reproduce and to see if the public liked the new smaller coinage. These Flying Eagle Cents were made of .880 Copper and .120 Nickel. They were struck by the millions in 1857 and 1858 but were extremely difficult to strike up fully and a new design was sought.

Longacre set out to design a replacement for the unappreciated Flying Eagle cent. He designed a coin with Liberty wearing an Indian headdress with “United States of America” and the date surrounding her. The reverse had “One Cent” enclosed inside a laurel wreath, which didn’t strike up as well as hoped and Mint Director James Snowden wanted a coin with more of a national character.

The laurel wreath was replaced with an oak wreath that had a small shield atop it. The design remained unchanged until 1864, when the composition of the coins changed to .950 Copper and .050 Tin and Zinc. This made the coins softer and easier to strike. 

Longacre’s design had been used for the last five years but it did not feature his initial. He added a microscopically small “L” on the ribbon, sideways, to add his monogram to his design.

Although base metal cents were unpopular in the South and the West in 1860, that all changed with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Between 1861 and 1865, all coinage was hoarded as it was preferable to using paper as money.

Today, that 1864-L Indian Head cent is highly desirable by collectors and commands a premium, in all grades, of at least 4 times the average 1864 Indian Cent. About 20 Proof strikings of the 1864-L Indian Head cent are known or believed to exist.  They are prohibitively rare and command a strong premium in the marketplace or at auction.

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