Small Cents – Indian Head Cent, Bronze, 1864-1909

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 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, which were redeemable for services and merchandise from the issuing businesses. In 1864, the year of Abraham Lincoln’s reelection and the Union victories at Cold Harbor, Atlanta, and the Shenandoah Valley that changed the momentum of the War in the favor of the North, Mint officials revised the Indian Head cent, copying the look and feel of these popular and readily accepted tokens.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The 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, which likely contributed to the hoarding of the early 1860s. 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. 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, 1877 (Philadelphia) and 1909 (San Francisco) did production drop below one million coins, and in 1907 over 100 million pieces were produced.

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.

Hundreds 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, 1869, 1872, and 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 at all grades, very expensive as Gem or finer. A few 1860s issues are more expensive than other dates, and the key date 1877 issue is considerably more expensive than all but the L On Ribbon examples at all grades. Cameo proof coins have a modest price premium at lower grades, which 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.


Designer: James B. Longacre
Circulation Mintage: high 108,137,143 (1907), low 309,000 (1909-S)
Proof Mintage: high 6,609 (1883), low 20 (1864-L, estimated. Approximately 150 1864 proof coins were minted without the L; the combined 1864 mintage is the lowest for the type)
Denomintion: $0.01 One cent (1/100)
Diameter: ±19 mm, plain edge
Metal content: 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc
Weight: ±3.11 grams
Varieties:Many known, including several date doubling or repunching; 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 double 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.

Additional Resources :

Coin Encyclopedia:
A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents. Richard Snow. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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