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Indian Head Cent, Bronze (1864-1909) – A Collector’s Guide

A 1909-S Indian Head Cent in Superb Gem Uncirculated Condition. Image: Stack's Bowers / Adobe Stock.
A 1909-S Indian Head Cent in Superb Gem Uncirculated Condition. Image: Stack’s Bowers / Adobe Stock.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

Why Was the Indian Head Cent Made in Bronze?

The Indian Head Cent saw its composition change from copper-nickel to bronze in 1864 due to the United States Mint’s efforts to produce a cheaper coin and get the coin to circulate in the northeastern states.

The small copper-nickel Indian Head “white” cent, so-called because of its lighter color in contrast 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 pieces, the cent had also disappeared from circulation, joining the silver and gold coins already in hiding. In the absence of this federal coinage, entrepreneurs issued cent-sized bronze tokens, which were redeemable from their respective businesses. In 1864, the year of President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and Union victories at Cold Harbor, Atlanta, and the Shenandoah Valley that changed the momentum of the war in favor of the North, the Mint revised the Indian Head Cent, copying the look and feel of the popular and readily accepted private tokens.

The metal composition of the Indian Head Cent changed from copper-nickel to bronze in 1864. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
The metal composition of the Indian Head Cent changed from copper-nickel to bronze in 1864. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

This proved effective, as the public accepted the new cent, allowing the denomination to circulate much more freely.

The design of the 1864 Indian Head Cent was basically the same as previous issues in the series, but the composition was changed from copper-nickel to a bronze alloy of copper, tin, and zinc. Though the copper content was seven per cent higher, the cent no longer contained expensive nickel, which had likely contributed to the hoarding of the early 1860s. Besides being less expensive to make, the bronze cent sans nickel was about a gram-and-a-half lighter, easier to strike, and darker in color due to the higher concentration of copper. Cents with both copper-nickel and bronze were produced in 1864, but nearly three times more of the new bronze cents were made. Only two issues of the series, the 1877 and the 1909-S, did production drop below one million coins, and in 1907 over 100 million pieces were produced.

The Bronze Indian Head Cent in the Modern Market

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 1864 L On Ribbon, the 1869, the 1872, and the low-mintage 1908-S pieces are slightly more expensive than other issues.

For Proof coins, prices are modest for lower-grade issues up to near-Gem grades, but as with circulation strikes, for some dates even Premium Gem and finer coins are relatively affordable. The “L On Ribbon” 1864 pieces are expensive in all grades, and very expensive as Gem or finer. A few 1860s issues are more expensive than other dates, and the key date 1877 Proof issue is considerably more expensive than all but the L On Ribbon examples in all grades. Cameo Proof coins have a modest price premium at lower grades that increases at higher grades.

For both circulation and Proof coins, Red coins are more expensive than either Red-Brown or Brown, and Red-Brown coins more expensive than Brown examples.

In-Depth Bronze Indian Head Cent Date Analysis by CoinWeek IQ

There are also a few articles on counterfeit coin detection specific to the bronze Indian Head Cent series, courtesy of NGC:

Design

Obverse:

Lady Liberty’s face on the Indian Head Cent is similar to the 1854 Three Dollar Gold piece designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre, and also bears resemblance to both his 1849 gold dollar and 1849 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. The legend UNITED STATES follows along a denticled border to the left, and the legend OF AMERICA follows along the right. The date is at the bottom.

Reverse:

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 the denomination 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.

Edge:

The edge of the coin is plain or smooth, without reeding or edge lettering.

Varieties

Many Indian Head bronze cent varieties are known, including several date doublings or repunchings. Other important varieties include the 1864 No L On Ribbon; the 1865 Plain and Fancy 5; the 1873 Closed and Open 3, referring to the amount of space between the top and bottom extensions of the digit (the Closed 3 appearing at first glance to be an 8); the 1873 Doubled LIBERTY; the 1886 Type 1 and Type 2, distinguished by the placement of the lowest feather on the Indian’s headdress relative to letters C and A in AMERICA; and other variations of device style and placement.

Coin Specifications

Indian Head Cent
Years Of Issue: 1864-1909
Mintage (Circulation): High: 108,137,143 (1907); Low: 309,000 (1909-S)
Mintage (Proof): High: 6,609 (1883); Low: About 20 (1864 With L – approx. 150 Proofs were minted without the “L”; the combined 1864 mintage is the lowest for the type)
Alloy: 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc
Weight: 3.11 g
Diameter: 19.00 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer: James Barton Longacre
REV Designer: James Barton Longacre

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

Snow, Richard. A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S and Kenneth Bressett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.

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CoinWeek
CoinWeek
Coinweek is the top independent online media source for rare coin and currency news, with analysis and information contributed by leading experts across the numismatic spectrum.

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27 COMMENTS

  1. I have 3 indian head one cent coins:
    1900,1903,1898. Not sure if they are worth any, no mint markings on the coins.
    Also have 2 silver five cent pieces 1920 and 1905

    • @Tanya Hutson Depending on condition you Indian Head cents are probably worth a dollar or two. They don’t have mint marks because until 1908, all US cents were struck in Philadelphia.

      If your 5¢ coins are from the US they’re made of copper-nickel. The only US nickels to contain any silver were struck from late 1942 through 1945, when nickel metal was needed for the war effort.

    • @Jeff Douglas What you almost certainly have is a novelty piece, not a genuine coin. These items are sold as decorations, coasters, etc.

      All US cents issued since the 1856/57 intriduction of so-called “small cents” have the same diameter, 19 mm. Note though that due to various composition changes, their weight has varied over the years.

  2. What does it mean if I have, like, a 1902 Indian Head pink Vinny but the head dress has no wording on it across her forehead.

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