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Indian Head Cents (1859-1909)

America's most beautiful copper coins

– America's 1¢ coins were greatly reduced in size during the 1850s due to the rising cost of copper. After the brief 1856-1858 mintage of the Flying Eagle cent in the new small size, the Indian Head cent debuted in 1859 and was struck for half a century until 1909, when it was replaced by the Lincoln cent. Designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, the Indian Head cent is widely considered the most attractive copper U.S. coin.

The Indian Head design actually depicts Liberty

The obverse design on the 1859-1909 Indian Head cents actually represents Liberty wearing an Indian headdress with a band inscribed liberty, not an actual Native American. The reverse of the 1859 Indian Head cent features a wreath of laurel leaves encircling the inscription one cent. The reverse design was changed in 1860 to a wider wreath of oak leaves surrounding the denomination, with a Union Shield above.

Early "white cents" replaced by bronze

Like the Flying Eagle cent that preceded it, the Indian Head cent was struck in 88% copper and 12% nickel during the early years of the series. The nickel gave these early issues a pale color, which earned the coins the nickname "white cents." The nickel also caused minting problems due to its hardness, so the composition was changed during 1864 to a bronze alloy of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. Later that same year, the image of Liberty was modified and a tiny L (for designer Longacre) was placed on the lower ribbon behind Liberty's neck.

Spanning the Civil War to the 20th century

Introduced in 1859, the Indian Head cent was issued throughout the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era that followed and the nation's Westward Expansion during the latter 19th century. These bronze classics witnessed the discoveries of rich western gold and silver deposits, the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the industrial development of America's greatest cities, the advent of the automobile and airplane, and the dawn of the 20th century.

The key coins in the Indian Head series

From 1859-1907, the Indian Head cent was struck only at the main U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and these coins bear no mint mark. During the final two years of the 1859-1909 series, the Indian Head cent was struck at San Francisco with an "S" mint mark in addition to Philadelphia. The scarcest and most valuable Indian Head cent is the 1877 issue, of which only 852,500 were coined. The second and third most desirable issues are the 1909-S and 1908-S Indian Heads – the only coins in the series with mint marks.

Indian Heads are a popular collecting project

The 1859-1909 Indian Head cent series is a popular collecting project for several good reasons. These coins feature an acclaimed design, they were issued during a dramatic and adventurous period in American history, and most issues are affordable in a range of grades. And because they were only minted in Philadelphia from 1859-1907, only one coin from each of those years is needed to assemble a complete collection. See Littleton's Flying Eagle Cent and Indian Head Cent Collector Checklist for a handy guide to completing the series.

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