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Indian Head Cents For Sale

History of the Indian Cent

In 1837, the U.S. Mint was spending $1.06 to produce 100 large cents and by the mid-1850s it was apparent to Mint officials that the large copper cents struck since 1793 were too cumbersome and unpopular.  The mint director at the time, John R. Snowden, had a desire to remove all foreign coins from commerce in the US.  During this time, it was not uncommon for foreign coins to be used for trade as people valued the metal content of the coin to determine its worth, but the idea of coins being issued with a face value regardless of metal content was beginning to catch on.

 The first “small cent” was produced in 1856 and authorized by Snowden but not the US congress.  It was a pattern cent and was made to show the congress what it would look like. The design was done by James B. Longacre.  The Flying Eagle motif was an adaptation of the Christian Gobrecht/Titian Peale design used on pattern dollars twenty years before. The reverse wreath was similarly adapted from the model Longacre had made for the 1854 one and three dollar gold pieces.  A few proof pieces were also produced for sale to collectors.  It is believed only about 1500-2500 of these were produced.  Although never released for circulation, and not technically an official US coin, a few probably made there way into general circulation in later years.   

The coinage law passed by Congress on February 21, 1857 gave Snowden the means to accomplish several things. In addition to abolishing the half cent, the law also specified that the new cent would weigh 72 grains and be composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel. But the most important provision as far as Snowden was concerned was the one that required the Mint and the Treasury Department to convert Spanish double-reales, reales and medios at the rate of 25, 12-1/2, and 6-1/4 cents, respectively. All other government offices would only convert these three denominations at the rate of 20, 10, and 5 cents. With such a powerful profit motive, banks were very desirous of exchanging as many of the foreign silver coins as possible for the new Flying Eagle cents. When the Flying Eagle cents were first released on May 25, 1857, more than a thousand people wound around the mint building to convert their old Spanish coins. A secondary market developed immediately, some people even paying a premium right on the grounds of the mint building itself. Soon enough, though, the Flying Eagle cent became commonplace, and by 1859 when the Indian cent design was introduced, the Mint had struck a total of 42,050,000 cents with the Flying Eagle design, more than enough for anyone who wished to have multiple examples. Snowden was successful in driving out the now-demonitized Spanish coins, and by 1859 it was estimated that some $2 million worth of the foreign silver pieces had been recoined into U.S. subsidiary coinage.  

As with other Longacre designs, the relief was too high. This caused problems on fully struck coins, they would not stack properly, and on less than perfectly produced pieces it created problems associated with die opposition, that is, either the eagle's head and tail did not strike up fully on the obverse or the wreath was ill-defined on the reverse. On coins dated 1857, weak reverse definition is especially prevalent.  

Difficulty in modifying the Flying Eagle cent design to correct the problem of short die life and poor strikeability led Chief Engraver James Longacre to abandon the eagle motif in favor of his new Indian Head design in 1859.  

Even with these changes, there were still problems with high relief of the reverse design.  The design was again modified to an oak wreath with a shield in the 12 o’clock position, and in 1860 the new design made its appearance

Vital Statistics Summary

Flying Eagle Cent

Indian Head Cent Obverse, Same Reverse as Flying Eagle

Indian Head Cent, Shield Added to Reverse

Indian Head Cent, Composition Change