History of the Indian Head Penny

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The Indian Head one-cent coin is a legal tender penny produced by the U.S. mint in the second half of the 19th Century through the early part of the 20th Century. Due to economic factors and changing standards, different editions of the coin have different material compositions, thus making certain versions more popular and valuable with collectors than others.


The California gold rush of the late 19th century had a profound effect on the precious metal trade. Bills backed by silver rose in value as gold become more abundant and the mint reduced the number of silver in coins to balance prices. To help further mitigate this imbalance, a new penny, the Flying Eagle Cent was issued, but manufacturing problems arose from its design. In 1959, a design by James Barton Longacre---nicknamed the Indian Head Cent---was issued. Production problems continued due to the high relief on the reverse, but the penny was minted until 1909.


The obverse of the Indian Head Cent features a right-facing profile of an American Indigenous person wearing a feather bonnet. "United States of America" and the year in which the coin was minted are also included. The reverse reads "One Cent," set within a laurel or oak wreath. In 1860, the design was changed slightly, adding a shield at the top and three arrows under the ribbon that binds the edges of the wreath. The edges of both sides are ridged.


Weathered coins are of less value to collectors.

While a myth endures that Longacre modeled the face on the coin after his daughter, there is no evidence to support this. Longacre' sketch of "Venus Accroupie," a museum piece in Philadelphia, has surfaced and is dated ten years before the coin was minted. It is likely this sketch served as the basis for the design.


The value of the Indian Head Cent has changed over the year, but every pressing of the coin, in mint condition, is worth at least a dollar. Rare editions are worth in excess of $100. The 1877 pressing is the most valuable and one of these coins in mint condition is worth approximately $440, according to the 2008 Blue Book Handbook of U.S. Coins.


The original 1859 version of the penny was comprised of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel. In 1864, congress passed a new Coinage Act, changing the composition of the Indian Head Cent to "French Bronze," which was 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc. Although the coin had limited legal tender status previously, it was officially recognized in 1865. The earlier edition weighs 72 grains while the newer version weighs 48 grains. 1,849, 648,000 Indian Head Cents were minted over the course of its production.