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CoinWeek IQ – The Oddities of Indian Head Cents

Indian Head Cents

By Lianna Spurrier for CoinWeek …..
We all know that there are countless varieties of large cents, meticulously cataloged and collected. Early silver coinage and Morgan dollars are the same way, with many collectors focused on varieties. But did you ever stop to think about variety collecting with Indian Head cents? They’re generally seen as a fairly straightforward 50-year run: one major design change, one composition change, and a few varieties noteworthy enough to include in albums. The 1877 and 1909-S are the stars of the series, but they – and plenty of others – have stories to tell that we don’t hear very often.

The 1864 Copper-Nickel With L

Two major changes were made to the Indian head cents series in 1864; the composition was changed from copper-nickel to bronze, and an “L” was added to the obverse in honor of James Barton Longacre, the designer.

However, these changes didn’t occur at the same time. It’s clear from the coins we see that the composition was changed before the L was added, but that doesn’t mean that there are no copper-nickel examples with the L. A grand total of five such coins have been found–two proofs and three circulation strikes. All of them were struck from dies also used on bronze planchets, and the circulation strikes were released alongside their bronze counterparts.

Some of these circulation strikes have been found graded, labeled as standard-issue 1864 copper-nickel cents. The proofs are generally identified as patterns, though they do challenge the definition of a pattern. Both the planchets and the dies were used for non-pattern coins of the same year, so might these instead qualify as a normal issue?

Regardless of what we call them, it’s worth keeping an eye out for in case a fourth circulation strike is sitting unidentified in a slab somewhere.

Shallow and Bold N Reverses

Did you know that Indian Head cents have different reverses? The N in ONE gradually became more and more shallow through 1869, then was made bold on most dies in 1870 and after, with some exceptions.

It was originally weakened on copper-nickel planchets to help with metal flow. There was some trouble getting a full strike on the obverse, but making the N on the reverse shallower pushed more metal up into Lady Liberty’s cheek, resulting in a better strike. In 1870, after switching to bronze planchets, they realized that this was no longer necessary and emboldened the N.

The difference is quite striking when viewed side-by-side, and is easy to pick out even on worn coins without a loupe. However, as with most minor design changes, it was not immediate; some old dies found their way into production as late as 1877, which resulted in some cherrypickable varieties, such as any 1870-1872 Indian Head with the Shallow N reverse. These are much rarer than their Bold N counterparts and can bring quite a premium.

An Intentional Variety

In 1875, the United States Mint suspected an employee of pocketing some of the cents he worked with each day. To catch him in the act, they confined him to a single press and marked the reverse die so the coins produced that day could be distinguished from any already in circulation. When the employee began acting suspiciously, he was searched to reveal 33 of the marked cents. The man – a longtime employee in his 70s whose mental state was in question more than his morals – resigned and left the mint.

This story was first published in May of 1972 in Numismatic Scrapbook, in an article by R. W. Julian. A letter describing the result of the investigation is reprinted in Rick Snow’s Flying Eagle & Indian Cent Attribution Guide, 3rd Edition, Volume 1. It never states what modification was made to the die to distinguish the coins, and it remained a mystery for years.

In 2008, Stack’s was cataloging pieces for the Decatur Sale to be held in August, and someone came across what is now known as the 1875 S16, which has a raised dot on the top left portion of the N in ONE. It was widely publicized, finally providing an answer to a numismatic mystery. While we can’t be sure that this is the marked coin referred to in the letter, it’s generally accepted as the most likely candidate.

But that’s not the end of the story. Stack’s wanted to avoid being accused of trying to “hype up” their own coins, so the discovery coin was listed in the catalog without any mention of the story behind it, or identifying that it was unique. The entirety of the description read, “Deep fiery red and medium golden tan toning create excellent eye appeal on this lightly cleaned, but very attractive example. A small cud-like piece of extra metal on the top of the diagonal of N in ONE adds interest.” There was no photo in the auction catalog, leaving only the experts to know what it really was.

As stated in Snow’s Attribution Guide, “No one noticed it, except this author and it sold for the price of a normal 1875 cent.” Today roughly 15 examples are known, and an MS64+ RD specimen sold for $4,080 at Stack’s Bowers in 2018. The variety and a two-sentence summary of its story have made their way into the Red Book. The dot should be visible on any coins in a grade of Fine or higher, so even low-end pieces are worth taking a look at.

A Closer Look at the 1877

We all know that 1877 is the key date of the series, but have you ever stopped to think about why?

Mintages of Indian Head cents started to decline in 1866 when the Civil War ended and hoarded coins started coming back into circulation, resulting in less need for new coins.

Due to legal tender laws at the time, banks could refuse to accept large quantities of coins, particularly base metal coins. To encourage banks to accept them, the Mint began to allow banks to ship them large batches of coins to be melted down and reissued. This eliminated a lot of earlier-date Indian Head cents all the way through 1873.

Eventually, the Mint came to the realization that they could just reissue the already minted coins instead of spending the time and money to restrike them. Copper-nickel cents and large cents were still melted, but bronze Indian heads were put back into circulation. As a result, they struck even fewer new coins each year.

1877 saw the height of a major depression across the US, which led people to spend any change they had been saving. This meant the Mint reissued more cents of previous years and the mintage of new coins reached a new low for the series.

Looking at official numbers, there were supposedly 852,500 pennies minted in 1877. However, among all known circulation strike examples, only one reverse die has been identified. A die would normally only last for about 200,000 coins, so if the number is to be believed, that die should have been falling apart by the end of the run.

But it wasn’t. They aren’t found with extensive die cracks or cuds, as would be expected from a die used to strike four times as many coins as normal. Something is amiss; perhaps the mintage record included coins dated 1876 or 1878, though this was unusual at that point in history. Even though the official mintage is significantly higher for 1877 than for the 1909-S, the 1877 is much more valuable because it is harder to find.

It should be noted that all circulation strikes for 1877 were made with the Shallow N reverse, while all proofs have the Bold N. It’s commonly believed that circulation issues for 1877 were weakly struck, but this is not the case – they’re overgraded. It’s particularly important to look at the coin instead of the label when buying an 1877.

The First San Francisco Pennies

The San Francisco Mint first produced cents in 1908, followed by the much more well-known rarities of 1909. Interestingly enough, they began producing cents because the trolley fare had been raised from five to six cents, creating much more need for them in the area.

The 1909-S Indian Head cent has an official mintage of only 309,000, the lowest of the year’s many different cent iterations. Even the much more widely coveted 1909-S VDB had a higher mintage at 484,000 (yet the 1877 is more expensive than either).

When it was minted, the 1909-S largely flew under the radar. The Lincoln cent was announced early in the year, so no one paid much attention to the end of a 50-year series. When it was announced that the VDB would be removed after a public outcry, people began to hoard them, not realizing that the mintage of the 1909-S Indian head was actually lower. Very few people saved rolls of these, though many kept rolls of Lincoln cents of the same year and mint. As a result, high-grade examples are very rare with only 20 estimated to survive in MS65 or better, compared to 3,000 1909-S VDBs.

Regardless, the 1909-S is widely counterfeited and should be purchased raw with extreme caution. There are some telltale signs to look for.

All obverses are weakly struck, and the first feather should be missing significant detail even in high grades. This is easy to see with a quick browse through images of certified examples, and any specimens encountered with full detail should not be trusted.

The shape and placement of the mintmark can be another giveaway. The bottom line of the S is very thin on authentic examples, and the bottom left serif points at the center of a denticle. Two different reverse dies were used, but this is the case on both.

Another thing to check (which is true for the entire Indian Head series) is the squareness of the edges. On authentic coins, the edges are slightly beveled, while most counterfeits have very square edges. If you can stand an Indian Head cent up on its side, it’s probably fake. This is not true for Lincoln cents, however, and shouldn’t be used as an indicator except for Indian Head and Flying Eagle cents.

There are two oddities with the denticles near the S identified by Snow that can aid in verification, but these are very difficult to see with a naked or untrained eye. The real dies don’t exhibit any noticeable file marks or cracks, so the presence of any of these should raise an eyebrow.

However, even a coin that checks off all of these boxes could turn out to be counterfeit. The moral of the story? Use extreme caution when buying rare dates raw.

A Final Note

A detailed look at the different varieties of Indian Head cents reveals quite a few with misplaced digits – a 1 in Lady Liberty’s neck, or a 3 in the denticles, etc. It’s hard to believe that anyone could mispunch a die so drastically as to put a number that far away from where it belonged.

It’s believed that these misplaced digits weren’t mistakes at all; rather, they were punched intentionally to check the hardness of the die, placed in areas where they would be hidden and never noticed. Apparently, no one expected future generations to look quite so closely at the series.

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  1. I have a 1899 Indian head United States Penny and a 1900 Indian head USPenny what IN good condition WHAT ARE THEY WORTH?


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