The Indian Head Penny was minted from 1859 to 1909 and designed by chief engraver James Barton Longacre. It replaced the Flying Eagle design, which was struck for only three years because it caused the Mint many striking problems. When the Indian Head Penny was first released, it was a copper-nickel coin and adopted the nickname “White Cent.” However, the Indian Head Penny’s composition was changed to bronze in 1864 to stop people hoarding the coin during the Civil War when nickel was in short supply.
On the obverse of the Indian Head Penny is Lady Liberty, facing left and wearing a Native American headdress inscribed LIBERTY. Sections of hair are flowing down her neck, which is dressed in a pearl or beaded necklace. Liberty is accompanied by the date below and surrounded by the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The reverse displays a simple wreath encircling the ONE CENT value. After just two years, the reverse was updated to show a thicker and more decorative wreath with a federal shield at the top.
Indian Head Pennies were struck at the Philadelphia Mint and composed of bronze until the design was discontinued in 1909 to make way for the Lincoln Wheat Penny.
When the Mint came to the decision to retire the Flying Eagle design, engraver James Barton Longacre was ordered to develop an alternative. Longacre had actually designed the Flying Eagle Penny, so the news that the design was being discontinued after just three years came as a bit of a blow. Nevertheless, Longacre did as he was told.
After rejecting Mint director James Ross Snowden’s idea of depicting the head of Columbus on the obverse, Longacre began sketching new designs for the Penny. Out of all the images Longacre had prepared, Snowden chose the now famous Indian Head design, which he instantly fell in love with. He also went with the laurel wreath with the lowest relief because he did not want to be faced with the same striking problems that the Mint had previously experienced with the Flying Eagle Pennies.
The first copper-nickel Indian Head Pennies were struck for circulation at the beginning of 1859. Then, in 1860, Snowden decided the reverse should be slightly altered to give the coin “more national character.” The wreath was made thicker and more ornate, and a shield was added in the space where the two ends of the wreath meet.
Indian Head Pennies composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel were struck every year from 1859 to 1864. Around 158 million pieces were made at the Philadelphia Mint over the six years. The rarest issue and only major variety is the 1860 Indian Head Penny with a pointed Liberty bust on the obverse, instead of the rounded bust found on the later 1860 examples and all other issues that followed.
When Americans began hoarding silver and gold coins during the Civil War, the U.S. monetary supply was devastated. While the Cent remained in circulation, the precious metals coins were removed and Congress authorized the production of paper notes. However, when the price of nickel increased as a result of wartime demand, the copper-nickel Penny eventually attracted hoarders as well.
In 1863, bronze tokens that could be redeemed for goods and services began appearing. Created by merchants and entrepreneurs, these tokens were being accepted by the public and used as an alternative to official coinage. Mint officials were quick to realize this and later replaced the copper-nickel Indian Head Pennies with bronze versions.
Bronze Indian Head Pennies look the same as the previous copper-nickel issues, except they are darker in color and lighter in weight. They were easier and more cost-effective to produce because bronze was much softer and cheaper than nickel. Some minor design changes did occur in 1886 when then chief engraver, Charles Barber repositioned the bust and lowered the relief. The bronze Indian Head Pennies were successful in ending the Cent shortage and remained in production until 1909.
One of the rarest bronze Indian Head Penny issues is the 1864-L which features Longacre’s L initial on the obverse. It is believed that the initial was added towards the end of the year, so very few examples display it. Another valuable issue is the 1869 with a doubled 9. The 1872 and 1908-S are also rare and difficult to locate. We should mention that the San Francisco Mint struck a limited quantity of Indian Head Pennies in 1908 and 1909. Proofs were also struck every year, with the great rarity being the 1864-L, of which only 20 are known.
Indian Head Pennies have always been favored by collectors and investors because they are not only beautiful coins but also valuable finds. The series remains one of the most coveted of all United States Mint offerings and never fails to attract more rare coin enthusiasts every year.
If you’re interested in purchasing copper-nickel or bronze Indian Head Pennies, or both, Capital Gold Group is the answer. We’ve assisted thousands of clients wishing to add rare coins to their collections and portfolios, including issues that are extremely difficult to find. For more information about purchasing Indian Head Pennies, please feel free to call us or send us a message via our online form.