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'Key' Date Cents Aren't Your Traditional Picks
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
September 23, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Collecting quarters from change may now be the common experience or the first one for the newest generation of coin collectors. Reaching back in time, many of the more “chronologically superior” collectors among us probably have a story or two about collecting Lincoln cents from circulation. But whatever got a person started, it’s hard to believe any of us have never even taken a look at our smallest circulating coin.

Cents remain a wonderfully easy series to collect. But if you take a moment and look at the entire history of the denomination, you could easily assemble a very meaningful collection of coppers - a series of key or noteworthy dates - without having to string together an enormous date and mintmark run. Let’s look at these “keys” and see what sort of collection can be built. Traveling backward through time brings us to the following years:


This may seem to be an uneventful year within the history of all U.S. cents from which to start any collection of key or notable coins. But it remains the year of different metals and weights. This was the year in which the Mint switched from truly copper cents to the current copper-coated zinc cents.

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With that change, almost two centuries of history in which copper was used for the smallest of coins came to an end in the United States. If a person chooses to collect each cent from each mint in each metal, there would be seven coins in the set (the San Francisco Mint made only proofs, and only in copper). But there are varieties in the size of the date as well. This all adds up, and gives the variety collector an interesting challenge.


Most collectors are aware that this was the last year of the Lincoln cent with the original wreath design on the reverse. Finding examples of either the issue from Philadelphia or Denver mints isn’t hard today. Even excellent mint-state examples are not particularly expensive.


But, of course, we need to remember the steel cents, made in a year in which the outcome of the world’s largest war was anything but certain. The armies of Nazi Germany had been pounding everyone they met in Europe and Africa. Likewise, the armies of Japan had spread throughout Asia and the Pacific, carving out a sphere of control that was enormous. The United States needed copper for the war effort, and got it in every way possible.

The lasting result for collectors today is the steel cents of 1943. Fortunately for us, they were made in high enough quantities that even mint-state examples are quite affordable.

There is a rare 1943-D/D variety that is costly. But giving that one a pass in favor of three good-looking pieces from the three different mints is no disgrace at all.


This is the first year in which one of my key dates actually does represent a key date within a series. But my rationale is somewhat different from simply adding a good-looking 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent to a collection. This is a rare year, in that it is one in which a you can accumulate six cents with the same date (seven if you want a rather odd variety). There are the 1909 and 1909-S Lincoln cents, then their famous classmates, as it were, with the prominent V.D.B.s on them. There are also the 1909 and 1909-S Indian Head cents, the last of their run. The two expensive coins in this sextet are the 1909-S V.D.B. and the 1909-S Indian Head. Strangely, the Indian Head is the rarest of the six, but the 1909-S V.D.B. always costs a bit more. But the other four aren’t going to flatten your wallet too much.

If you do want that strange, seventh 1909, well, it’s the 1909-S Lincoln cent with the S over a horizontal S. That truly must have been an interesting moment in some Mint employee’s day.


The next date may not seem too special at all when it comes to cents. But 1907 saw the very first gumball machines make it out to stores and into the marketplace. With more than 108 million Indian Head cents issued that year, you can only guess if the one you buy ever went through a gumball machine or not. But that mintage pretty much guarantees you can purchase a sharp-looking one for a very low price. If you spend $50 on one, you’re pretty deep into the mint-state grades.


Moving back to 1859, once again, we don’t automatically associate the year with any big, national event. But this is the one-year design for the Indian Head cent in that the wreath on the reverse was changed in 1860, from laurel to oak.

There were more than 36 million Indian Head cents produced that first year, making them fairly common today. Only the mint-state grades have any substantial price tags associated with them.


Moving back just one year generally makes us think of one of the two common dates of the short-lived Flying Eagle cent, and may make copper aficionados think of the varieties that exist within this particular year. But I’ve included it in my rather different list of key dates for cents because, even though this was a transition time to small cents within the United States, it was the first year of issue for the Canadian large cent. Yes, in one of those odd twists in history, right as one country was phasing out a large copper cent, its good neighbor was creating one. The 1858 cents sporting Queen Victoria on the obverse really are not too expensive, even in the better grades, simply because the collector base is somewhat smaller. That makes adding one to a key date collection a pretty easy task. Plus, an 1858 duo from north and south of the border is a neat twist to traditional cent collecting.


At this point it may seem like we are just moving back a year at a time, but there’s a very good point to considering 1857 a key year among U.S. copper. It was the last year of the U.S. large cents.

Think about it for just a moment. The United States had been pounding out large cents in one design or another since 1793, and had used the Coronet head, with some modifications, since 1816. For more than four decades these large cents had been the big copper coin of the land. But by 1857 the Mint was in the same quandary it finds itself in today: making cents cost too much.

Plus, people apparently didn’t like carting this much metal around (half a dollar of these weighed in at about a pound). Millions of large cents had been made each year for decades, and the total for the 1857 large cents is something of a disappointment in comparison. Only 333,546 of them were produced.

Perhaps people saved them then, or perhaps collectors today don’t gravitate toward them too much—or perhaps both. Whatever the reason, the price tags for this final large cent are not too bad, and adding one to a collection should not prove to be a problem.


Moving back into what is now called the Classic Head series, it might be a great idea to add an 1814 cent to the collection simply because of the connection to the “Star Spangled Banner.” I have only connected one cent thus far with any specific war, but the year in which our national anthem was first penned is probably special enough that it would be unpatriotic to leave it off. By 1814, the Mint had proved several times that it was capable of producing millions of cents on an annual basis. But this year it pummeled only 357,830 copper blanks into cents.

So, it will definitely cost a few hundred dollars just to ante up, for either of the two varieties that exist for the 1814 cent. And getting an example in mint state will definitely be costly.

The good news related to all this, however, is that there seem to be few enough collectors of these early cents that the 1814 isn’t really more expensive than the much more common dates in this short series (they were issued only from 1808-1814). So while this key coin is a key in the traditional sense, as well as on my list, it is not an impossible piece to own.


Reaching back, the Draped Bust cents issued from 1796 to 1807 have some amazing mintages and varieties plunked down right within their dozen-year span. I included the 1802 here because it is the earliest date of this series that has a mintage so high it will probably be called common until the next Ice Age. The number in question is just over 3.4 million, which is a lot of cents. That big pile then translates into prices most collectors can afford, such as $200 or so in Fine-12. Even a frugal collector can save up for a small piece of history like this, a piece more than two centuries old.


Going this far back, the Draped Bust large cent was still a newborn, having first been issued in 1796. Today, such cents can be expensive, but they have taken a special place in the hearts of collectors. The major price lists often post four different varieties within this single year, although prices do not differ too much between them. Yet, like one of the years I have just mentioned, 1797 becomes one of my key dates because of what someone else did. Namely, Great Britain issued its first copper pennies that year.

The British penny, sometimes called a “cartwheel” based on its size, is simply an enormous copper coin. And 1797 was the year this was unveiled, ending centuries of what are generally referred to as the silver pennies of Great Britain.

The U.S. version of a Draped Bust with this date, no matter the variety, will cost about $500 for a specimen with some decent design elements still in place, such as an F-12. A handsome-looking cartwheel will cost considerably less, and can become a great addition to a growing collection of cents.

I’d love to go back further, but the expenses pile up fast with any U.S. cent that was made between 1793 and 1797. So we can heave that sigh of longing, but keep ourselves happy knowing that we have assembled a good set of key date coins—meaning key in history, as opposed to key in mintages. Have fun making a set of your own.

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On September 25, 2013 Bob Vallari said
While there are certainly a number of other dates that could be included in such a collection, I would suggest 1864 belongs because metal and design transitions that year gave rise to some highly collectable Indian Head Cents. Very nice article overall. Thank you.

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