Background of the 1877 Indian Head Cent
The small “white cents”, so-called because of their light color compared to that of the older large cents, had at first escaped the hoarding of coins that came with the Civil War. But by 1862, in spite of the production of millions of the coins, the cent had also disappeared from circulation, joining the silver and gold coins already in hiding.
In the absence of federal coinage, entrepreneurs issued cent-sized bronze tokens, redeemable for services and merchandise from issuing businesses. In 1864, the year of Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and Union victories at Cold Harbor, Atlanta, and the Shenandoah Valley that changed the direction of the war in favor of the North, officials at the United States Mint revised the Indian Head cent, copying the look and feel of these popular and readily accepted tokens.
The new design was basically the same, but the composition changed from copper-nickel to bronze (copper, tin, and zinc). Though the copper content was higher (increasing from 88% to 95%), the cent no longer contained the expensive nickel alloy that likely contributed to the previous hoarding. The bronze cent was also darker in color because of the higher copper content, about a gram-and-a-half lighter, less expensive to make, and easier to strike because the coins no longer contained the hard nickel metal. The public accepted the new cents, which finally began to freely circulate.
Only two issues of the series, the 1877 and the 1909-S, saw production drop below one million coins.
Thousands of business strike bronze Indian Head cents have been certified, usually with Red (RD), Red-Brown (RB), and Brown (BN) color designations, though very few are classified as prooflike. Prices are moderate for most dates up to Near Gem, but even Premium Gem and finer coins are relatively affordable for many dates. Most expensive are the 1873 Double LIBERTY, the 1877 (long considered a key date), and the 1888/7 overdate.
The 1877 Indian Head Cent in Particular
Published data puts the overall mintage of the 1877 Indian Head cent at 852,500 pieces, which at the time of its issue meant that this cent had the lowest mintage of any small cent since the minuscule emission of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent. One major factor accounting for the low production total of one-cent coins in 1877 was the continuation of the economic depression that was set off with the Panic of 1873. That crisis struck the global banking industry, starting in Europe but quickly spreading to America and causing a political shift in the American South, with the Republican Party losing favor to Southern Democrats and the stalling and collapse of a number of Reconstruction projects, including several planned railroad lines. The American economy began to improve materially only with the arrival of waves of new immigrants and a series of banking reforms.
Another factor, and probably just as important, was the large number of coins turned in for redemption at the U.S. Mint.
At the time, the small cent had a legal tender limit of just four cents, which, thanks to the Mint Act of 1871, meant that banks carrying a glut of one-cent coins could redeem without incurring a financial loss. This created a backlog of coins for the Mint to dispose of, which, combined with the lower demand for 1877 cents, laid the groundwork for the low mintage.
Interestingly, despite its long-held reputation as being the “key” to the Indian Head cent series, the 1909-S – one of only two issues struck at a Branch mint location – actually holds the record for the lowest mintage for the type with a total of just 309,000 pieces struck before the San Francisco Mint changed out the dies in favor of the new Lincoln cent type.
Rick Snow, a specialist in Indian cents, attributes two die pairs for the business strike 1877 cent. The first features the digits of the date closer together and the second has the digits spread farther apart. Both pairs develop die cracks on the obverse, with S-2 having an unbroken hub on the D of UNITED and a die dot abutting the hair on Liberty’s neck.
Certified populations of the 1877 cent break down into the following collectible categories: Proof strikings of which 1,250 to 1,500 were distributed, and business strikes in circulated and Mint State grades.
NGC reports a population of 3,252 pieces in circulated grades and just 350 in Mint State. The NGC Mint State population breaks down to 148 in Brown (BN), 196 in Red-Brown (RB), and just 16 in Red (RD). The finest grade examples in NGC holders top out at MS66 for Brown and Red-Brown and MS65 in Red.
PCGS reports a population of 5,590 pieces in circulated grades with just 728 in Mint State. The PCGS Mint State population breaks down to 180 in Brown, 450 in Red-Brown, and 90 in Red. As was the case with NGC, there are no certified examples of the 1877 cent in the grade MS67 or above. The finest example certified by PCGS is the Red MS66+ pictured above. Known as the “Golden Princess“, this example only surfaced at the end of the 20th century when it appeared uncertified in Stack’s January 1999 Americana Sale. Collector Stewart Blay purchased the coin and later had it certified by PCGS.
At the MS66 Red grade level, prices at auction for the 1877 cent have ranged from $100,000 to $149,000, with the highest prices being paid between 2007 and 2009. While at this level, this coin infrequently trades, Heritage does have a late 2019 sale of a PCGS MS66RD CAC at $114,000.
Heritage Auctions records prices of MS66 Red examples consistently above $110,000.
A step down at MS65 Red, the 1877 trades for about $30,000, while choice examples in MS63 Red bring about $7,500.
The Red-Brown designation is applied to Mint State Indian Head cents that retain much but not all of their original red colorations. In MS66 Red-Brown, examples sell for about $30,000, while MS65 examples bring between $15,000 and $18,000. These savings carry over to the MS63 grade, where the typical piece brings about $5,000 at auction.
The Brown designation can be complicated as it includes examples that have mellowed into a chocolate brown – as well as those that have toned spectacularly well. PQ examples with high-end toning sell for significant premiums over ordinary brown examples – even if they do not merit extra consideration in the NGC or PCGS Set Registry formula. The typical Brown example sells for considerably less than examples in Red-Brown and Red. A range of between $5,350 and $8,750 covers the Brown grading spectrum of MS63 to MS65.
Liberty’s face on the Indian Head cent is similar to Longacre’s 1854 three-dollar gold piece, and also bears resemblance to his 1849 gold one dollar and double eagle Liberty portraits. Wearing a beaded necklace, Liberty faces left. On her head is a nine-feathered Indian war bonnet with a band displaying LIBERTY. Locks of hair drape down the back and one end of the diamond-patterned headband curls slightly to the front, with the other end somewhat hidden between the hair and the bottom feather. Early 1864 bronze cents had the rounded tip of the bust as on the copper-nickel issues, but later coins for 1864 and all subsequent years have a pointed bust tip and a small L (for Longacre, sometimes hard to see because of wear) in the lower part of the smaller ribbon to the back. UNITED STATES follows along a denticled border to the left, OF AMERICA along the right. The date is at the bottom.
The reverse has a concentric two-part wreath inside a denticled rim, tied together at the bottom by a ribbon that also binds three arrows. The wreath is mostly composed of oak leaves with acorns, though another type of leaf is shown at the bottom on the left side. The top ends of the wreath separate to allow for the placement of a small Union shield and ONE CENT is prominently displayed in the center of the flan. Bronze Indian Head cents, both circulation and proof issues, were produced every year in Philadelphia, and at San Francisco in 1908 and 1909; the S mintmark is located on the reverse, below the tie of the ribbon, and slightly off-center to the right.
The edge of the Indian Head cent is smooth or plain.
|Year Of Issue:||1877|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|Alloy:||95% Copper, 5% Zinc and Tin|
|OBV Designer||James Barton Longacre|
|REV Designer||James Barton Longacre|
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