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Indian Head Cent Stood Test of Time
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
August 31, 2011

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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James Longacre must have been a better engraver than his critics thought. In designing the Indian Head cent, he managed to blend seemingly inconsistent design elements into a masterpiece that remained in production for half a century.

A Caucasian instead of an Indian. A headdress, usually reserved for select males, atop the head of a female. A young girl as a symbol of Liberty. On the face of it, the whole thing seemed crazy. But Longacre put it all together in grand style, with the enthusiastic support of the Mint director and the Treasury secretary.

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From their standpoint, the Indian Head cent’s greatest attribute was its low relief. Longacre’s Flying Eagle cent, despite its beauty, was difficult to strike. The reason was that portions of the eagle’s head and tail feathers were directly opposite the sides of the thick wreath on the reverse. In contrast, the Indian head posed no such problem.

The design change really started rolling on Nov. 4, 1858. That’s when Mint Director James Ross Snowden wrote to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, suggesting a replacement for the Flying Eagle cent.

Snowden recommended Longacre’s Indian Head proposal. “The obverse presents an ideal head of America,” he wrote, “the drooping plumes of the North American Indian give it the character of America.”

Although Liberty was obviously not of Native American origin, Snowden described the obverse as depicting “an Indian Head with a falling crown of feathers.”

The legend that Longacre’s daughter Sarah was the model for Liberty is almost as old as the Indian Head cent itself. There are many variations of the story, one of which appeared in the Sept. 14, 1906, issue of the Philadelphia Record:

“A competition was opened for sketches and engravings for the new copper cent that was to be issued and which has since been in service. There were thousands of designs offered. The prize was $1,000.

“Longacre racked his brains for some original and singular design that would strike the judges, but for months he failed to satisfy himself, says the Detroit News-Tribune.

“One morning a number of Indians with their chief, who had been to pay their respects to the great white chief in Washington, came to the city and were shown through the Mint. They were introduced to the white chief’s picture-maker, who was just then showing his young daughter, Sarah, the great concern.

“The old chief was attracted by the sweet-faced maiden and her interest in his headgear. This was told the chief, who solemnly divested himself of his feathers and had them placed on the girl’s head.

“The effect was so striking that the father took the time to make a sketch of the picture, finishing it afterward for his own amusement.

“At the last moment of the period given for sending in the engravings, he bethought himself of the possibility of the combination of the Indian feathers and Saxon sweetness. He got it in, and much sport was made of the child at the time in the city because of the incident.

“The sketch passed through the seventh sifting and finally reached the last round. By one vote it won, and ever since, Sarah Longacre’s young face has served for the humblest of coins, that which no other coin in the world has such tremendous circulation.”

The legend irritated Mint engraver Charles Barber. He went to great lengths to shoot down the story, explaining what he considered to be the facts in a letter published in the March 1910 issue of The Numismatist:

“Regarding the story that appeared in the newspapers of several cities of the United States relating to the head upon our bronze one-cent coin, I beg to say that it is most difficult to disprove a story of this character, and in fact, many persons do not want any evidence to upset a pretty romance such as is now woven around this coin, any more than they are anxious for facts that will cast doubt upon the origin of our flag and the Betsy Ross romance.

“Nevertheless, such facts as I am in possession of I will gladly give.

“Mr. Longacre was the engraver when the change in the one-cent piece was made.… What he used as a model for the head it is quite impossible for anyone at this late day to say, but we have in the Mint evidence which, to my mind, is sufficient to satisfy an unprejudiced mind that he did not use either his daughter or an Indian war bonnet.

“One of the gentlemen still in the Mint, and who was an assistant to Mr. Longacre, remembers very distinctly that Mr. Longacre’s sentiments regarding portraits upon our coins were opposed to anything of this kind.

“It is very clear in his mind that Mr. Longacre’s aim was to portray what he considered an ideal head of an Indian female. This he gathered from many conversations upon this subject.…

“We have also further facts which go to prove that Mr. Longacre did not use his daughter for the model, namely, in the original model for the head upon the double eagle executed by Mr. Longacre in 1849, we find precisely the same features as are upon the cent, only the feathers are omitted. “Now, if the child was only six years old in 1859 when the cent was executed, she certainly was not used for the model of the head in 1849.

“We also find the same head upon the $3 coin, with a change in the feathers; also in another model for an experimental coin with a sitting figure.

“In all these coins there is the same character of features, plainly proving to anyone familiar with the work of the engraver of coins that, when called upon to produce a female Indian profile, Mr. Longacre had in mind and used his ideal, an never thought of using a portrait of anyone.”

Pattern Indian Head cents dated 1858 were struck in a variety of metals and sold in sets that included Flying Eagle cent patterns. James Ross Snowden wrote in A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins in the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States, published in 1860:

“In 1858 a new device was contemplated for the nickel cent, and several varieties of that cent were coined. Of these, there were three different obverses.

“1st: The obverse of the legal cent of 1857-58.

“2nd: A small eagle volant, presented in a different position from that of the legal cent.

“3rd: An Indian Head, with a falling crown of feathers (afterward adopted).

“These obverses were combined with four different reverses in such manner as to produce eleven different varieties. These were as follows:

“1st: A wreath of cereals, within which is inscribed ‘ONE CENT.’ This was the same as the legal cent of 1858.

“2nd: An oak wreath, enclosing the inscription ‘ONE CENT,’ above which is a small shield bearing the arms of the United States. The objection to this was that the shield had the appearance of a harp.

“3rd: Same as the preceding, with the shield omitted.

“4th: A wreath of laurel, within which is inscribed ‘ONE CENT,’ (afterward adopted, in combination with the Indian Head above).

“The large or authorized eagle was combined with the last three named reverses, while the other two obverses were combined with the four reverses, making eleven in all.”

Recently, a group of 1858 Indian Head cents was reportedly purchased at an estate auction near Asheville, N.C. The sale was held at the site of an old house, and the coins were in an antique cigar box.

In 1859, the first year of regular Indian Head cent production, the Philadelphia Mint struck more than 36 million cents. Although they had the same copper-nickel composition as Flying Eagle cents, there was still concern about the perceived danger of nickel in coins.

The April 29, 1859, issue of the Reading, Pa., Daily Times reported, “A paragraph is going the rounds of the press to the effect that the new nickel cent is poisonous, and consequently dangerous money to place in the hands of children.”

But government officials said there was no cause for alarm, and copper-nickel cents were struck for several more years.

The first Indian Head cents had a laurel wreath reverse. In 1860 the design was changed to an oak wreath, with three arrows below the ribbon.

Cent mintages were large in 1859 and 1860 because of the demand to redeem obsolete large cents and half cents.

The inclusion of nickel in the cent’s alloy added to its intrinsic value. As a result, cents disappeared from circulation during the Civil War, in the same way silver and gold coins were hoarded.

Taking the official cents’ place were privately-struck one-cent tokens composed of bronze, including some that copied the Indian Head design.

An 1864 law banned Civil War tokens. The same year, however, the government copied the tokens by changing the Indian Head cent’s composition to bronze.

In addition, the initial “L” was added to Liberty’s hair in belated recognition of Longacre’s role as designer. Unheralded in their own time, Indian Head cent varieties such as the 1864 L are of great interest to collectors today.

“Plain 5” and “Fancy 5” cents were struck in 1865. Overdates in the Indian Head cent series include the 1867/1867, 1869/9 and 1894/94.

In 1873, “Open 3” and “Closed 3” cents were struck. Early in the year, someone at the Mint realized the “Closed 3” could be mistaken for an “8.” So a replacement punch with an “Open 3” was made. Collectors didn’t popularize the “Closed 3” and “Open 3” varieties until the 1930s.

Some 1873 “Closed 3” cents have doubled lettering in “LIBERTY.” One variety has all of the letters doubled; another has only “ERTY” doubled.

In 1875, some cents were struck with a tiny dot in “UNITED.” One theory is that it may have been a secret mark to help catch a Mint employee stealing cents.

In 1877, the Mint struck fewer than 900,000 cents, creating the most famous rarity in the Indian Head cent series. A Good-4 survivor is valued at nearly $1,000, but there may still be some examples awaiting discovery. A metal detectorist recently reported finding an 1877 Indian Head cent at a picnic grove in Upstate New York.

Newspapers predicted a cent shortage in 1879 because of the Bland-Allison Act. Cent production was temporarily suspended as the mints focused on the heavy production of standard silver dollars required by the act.

Although few cents circulated in the West, an order for $1,000 worth was submitted from San Francisco in 1879. According to a newspaper item, it was the first cent order from the Bay City in “many years.”

Larger orders for cents were submitted from Georgia and Alabama.

Cent production surged in the 1880s, but there were still not enough to go around. Shortages were reported in Georgia in 1883, and throughout the West and South in 1889. In 1886, demand for cents across the country was described as “unprecedented.”

The pattern continued in the 1890s, despite the economic depression that began in 1893.

Meanwhile, cents found new uses as souvenirs. Elongated Indian Head cents were rolled at many events, local and national, including the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1896 Spokane Fruit Fair and the 1808 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha.

Once considered rare, aluminum was abundant by the late 1800s. Aluminum “Lucky Penny” holders featured decorative and commemorative themes. An Indian Head cent was pressed into the opening, and a small hole near the top the edge of the frame enabled it to be attached to a key chain. Encased lucky cents served as souvenirs of events ranging from small-town picnics to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

By 1899, 1 billion Indian Head cents were in circulation, with more to follow. Like leaves in a forest, counterfeit cents flooded the country in 1901, mingling with the nearly 80 million cents struck at the Philadelphia Mint that year.

In 1903, newspapers told of a “craze” for 1902 cents because of a rumor they contained gold. Peak Indian Head cent production occurred in 1907, when more than 108 million were struck. Some of them probably went into “Gunda” the elephant’s collection. The Sept. 6, 1907, issue of The Duluth Daily Star said:

“Gunda, prize elephant of the Bronx zoo, collects pennies from all callers before his cage, depositing them in a box and ringing a bell to register them.

“Keeper Walter Thurman took him out for a walk Monday. The keeper says Gunda had concealed several coins in his trunk. When they passed Joe Stanley’s stand, the elephant placed the money on the counter and waited to be served. Ice cream was all he had to offer. Gunda was given a pan full.

“He devoured it and waited. Twice the pan was replenished. The supply was exhausted. Gunda was still waiting for more.

“Three other keepers rushed to Thurman’s aid and by liberal use of the hook they finally got Gunda back to his cage, where he began collecting more pennies for his next excursion.”

In other news, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was said to be working on new designs for the double eagle, eagle and cent.

“A radical change is made in the design of the cent,” the Aug. 14, 1907, issue of The Washington Reporter said, “and though the Indian Head will be retained, it will bear little resemblance to the old one, and is expected to be more characteristic of the American Indian with real headdress instead of the present design.”

Saint-Gaudens died before he could finish the cent design. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Victor D. Brenner to design a Lincoln cent.

Indian Head cents were struck exclusively at the Philadelphia Mint from 1859 through 1907. In response to demand for cents in the South and West, however, the Act of April 24, 1906, provided for the striking of cents at branch mints.

The San Francisco Mint was first to take advantage of the law. In a section of the Annual Report relating to operations at San Francisco, the Mint director wrote:

“The manufacture of United States minor coin was instituted during the year, and on Nov. 27, 1908, the first one-cent pieces ever made at the San Francisco Mint were delivered by the coiner to the superintendent.

“The one-cent bronze coins struck during the [fiscal] year amounted to $14,240.

“The bronze coins manufactured during the year were made on the silver presses. Two new presses for bronze coining are now being installed to handle this class of work.”

The San Francisco Mint struck more than 1.1 million Indian Head cents in 1908, but it produced only 309,000 in 1909.

The Denver Mint didn’t begin striking cents until 1911. By then, the Indian Head design was obsolete.

The New York Times praised the Indian Head cent as “a cultural memorial to the American Indian.” On Aug. 2, 1909, however, it gave way to the Lincoln cent as part of the national Lincoln Centennial celebration.

The Philadelphia Record mourned the passing of the Indian Head cent. It said, “Mrs. Sarah Longacre Keen, who lived and died in Philadelphia, came nearer being the queen of the American Mint than any other woman who ever lived, with the exception of Queen Victoria, whose image was engraved on every coin of the British and Indian empires.”

“Mrs. Keen was first in the number of her metal photograph,” the newspaper added. “Her face as a girl of 12 summers is to be seen on every American cent issued since 1859 up to the coining of the Lincoln cent, from Uncle Sam’s coin factory.”

Having originated as a practical replacement for the Flying Eagle cent, the Indian Head cent became an important part of everyday life. Around 1.8 billion were struck by the time the series ended.

Indian Head cents were used to purchase everything from penny candy to penny postcards and the stamps to mail them. Some Indian Head cents were pressed into “Lucky Penny” aluminum frames. Others were transformed into souvenir elongated cents at fairs and expositions.

When the Mint’s presses switched to Lincoln cents in 1909, it signaled the beginning of the end for the Indian Head cent, which lingered in circulation for decades. During a cent shortage in 1951, for example, the government urged the public to put Indian Head cents back into circulation.

For some people, the change to the Lincoln head design was hard to take, even if they admitted “Abe” deserved the honor. After all, Longacre’s patchwork but perfect Indian Head design had become as much a tradition as the symbols it presented.

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