Coins and Context – THE INDIAN HEAD CENTS – Part 2
So, the Indian Head Cent, after a few problematic years of its early production, became a fixture in daily commerce of mid-19th century America. Large cents, Flying Eagles, and Civil War tokens faded into memory to be resurrected in later years in small accumulations of family memorabilia that are still with us, but in a different context.
James B. Longacre, the long-suffering Chief Engraver at the
mint in Philadelphia, had diligently weathered the growing pains of the
transition to a modern coinage, whose “French Bronze” alloy, that he
inaugurated in 1864, remained the standard for US cents through 1982.
Later in the year, a small letter “L” appeared on the new
1864 bronze cents, on the ribbon of the headdress. I honestly don’t know if
this was Longacre’s idea or someone else’s. Probably not an Act of Congress,
but well deserved in any case. The transition from large to small cents,
radical change in alloys, and the adjustment of the equipment and procedures
was likely no small project.
Longacre passed away in 1869, well before the key date of
the series was struck in 1877. Key dates
are usually lower mintage dates, and the 1877 was made in fewer numbers than
any of the Indian Cents except for the 1909-S in the final year of production. And,
there is a strong connection to the low number of 1877’s produced (852,500
pieces) to Longacre’s transition to the bronze cent in 1864.
Once again, the legal tender of one cent coins surfaced –
this time because the bronze cents were intrinsically worth so much less than
their face value. Remembering that people in the early to mid-19th
century took it as a matter of course that their coins contained metal nearly
equivalent to their face value, they were surprised when the Mint Act of 1864
let them know otherwise by limiting the maximum use of bronze cents to 10
pieces per transaction! The Mint Act of 1871 was an effort to mitigate this
situation by allowing unlimited redemption of these coins by the banks, along with other
coins not in favor with the public.
So, the pennies began to back up at the banks in a big
way. Sacks and sacks of them, along with
the many old large cents, the unpopular 2 cent bronze and 3 cent nickel coins
that were brought out in 1864 and 1865, respectively. The banks were required
to redeem all of these in unlimited quantities.
By 1877 these redemptions were beginning to wane somewhat –
but there was also an economic slowdown in place that, with the public
redemptions now being mostly of the bronze cents drastically reduced the need
for new one cent coins. Production of new 1877 cents was cut off early in the
year. , due to Long
In 1886 Charles E. Barber, who we’ll meet in later postings
on this site, decided to make some adjustments to the master die hub. From the
time of the first bronze cents of 1864 there was a noticeable doubling of some
of the dates and lettering – apparently Mr. Longacre at times had a heavier
hand in punching these details into the dies which caused a slight bounce in
the punch and a doubling of the feature being punched…
In remaking the master hub, Barber moved the last feather of
the Indian headdress slightly lower. This feather on hubs since 1864 had
pointed between the I and C in AMERICA (Variety 1.) On Barber’s adjusted hub
the feather points between the C and the A (Variety 2.) The second variety is somewhat rarer. For the
proof coins of that year the high-grade coins of Variety 2 are quite scarce.
The second rarest of the Indian Cents is the 1909-S. San Francisco struck a portion of the cent
production in 1908 and 1909. In 1909 the Lincoln cent was coming in and
production of the Indian cent was consequently only 309,000.
Photos are provided for each of the coins
discussed, courtesy of PCGS.