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Six stellar type set choices
By Mark Benvenuto
May 10, 2017

Most collectors are aware that for the past several years there have been calls within Congress as well as from everyday citizens to do something about the cost of producing the cent. They say, either get rid of it, find some better, use a less expensive alloy, or find a way to make it smaller.

But to use an old aphorism: what goes around, comes around. The cost of the metal used to make one-cent coins was a hot topic just over 160 years ago. In 1856, the U.S. Mint was producing a river of one-cent pieces, now called Coronet Head cents. But it was also examining how to make our nation’s copper coins much less expensively than it was currently doing. For the modern collector, there is an interesting type set a person might assemble that straddles the years in which we made one of our most significant changes in copper coinage. Let’s look at what that entails.

 

1856 Coronet Head cent. By 1856, one form or another of what was called the Coronet large cent had been coming out of the Mint for four decades. What several references call the “Braided Hair” design had been produced since 1839, often in rather large numbers. No single year had seen an output of more than 10 million large cents, although the 1851s come close. The mintage for 1856 was a bit over 2.69 million, making it a fairly common large cent for collectors interested in it today.


As with many of the large cents, prices for specimens in any uncirculated grade command something of a premium, but those in About Uncirculated or Extremely Fine are quite reasonably priced.

 

Flying Eagle cents. The year 1856 was not the ultimate end for the large cent, but it was close. It also became the first year of the small cent, at least in that there were enough Flying Eagle cents produced that year that today they tend to be considered something more common than a pattern. The artistry for this small cent was by James Longacre, the same man who produced the designs for the Shield nickel, the silver three-cent piece, and the gold $20, among others. The fourth Mint chief engraver, Longacre was certainly a prolific designer, but we can only wonder today if he knew how many small cents would eventually bear his design work.

Plenty of us can dream about adding an 1856 Flying Eagle cent to our collections, but it stays just that because the price tag for this first small cent is a nightmare. The more reasonably priced alternative is an 1857 or 1858 Flying Eagle cent. There were over 17.4 million made in 1857, and 24.6 million in 1858, making either of these dates very affordable. Even in mint state these latter two dates of what might be the shortest series ever cost only a few hundred dollars.

I mentioned that 1856 was not the end of the large cents, 1857 was. And so we might want to add an 1857 large cent to any Flying Eagle cent we might purchase. This final year of the large cents won’t be a cheap addition to a collection, as there were only 333,546 of them made. But it doesn’t necessarily cost a fortune either.

 

1859 Indian Head cent. The short-lived Flying Eagle cents were replaced in 1859 by what would become the much longer-lived Indian Head cents, also the work of Longacre. Interestingly though, the first year of issue for the Indian Head cent quickly became a stand-alone design, since the wreath that dominates the reverse was changed the very next year. This makes the 1859 Indian Head with its laurel wreath reverse a coin that becomes a great addition to any growing collection of copper from this decade of change.

There were more than 36 million of these first Indian Head cents produced, making them fairly affordable today. In mint state the prices rise rather steeply, but that’s most likely because these were working coins, made to be used and spent. As an interested aside, there were approximately 800 proofs made that year. One of these will always cost at least $5,000, but the better, bigger challenge might be finding one. These are after all, a very small subset of a 36 million coin output, and even at a few thousand dollars probably qualify as an undervalued coin. Plus, what an addition to any collection.

 

1860-1864 Indian Head cents. As mentioned, and as with quite a few U.S. coinage designs, there were some tweaks as the first year of the Indian Head cent evolved into the second. The wreath on the reverse was changed from laurel to oak, and a federal shield was added to the top, where the branches of the wreath almost join. For a five-year span, this design and this metal alloy—a copper-nickel mix—were used to produce Indian Head cents. All of them are quite affordable, certainly in the uppermost circulated grades. The 1862 and 1863 are the least expensive of the set, because they are the most common by far.

 

Bronze Indian Head cents. The Indian Head cents have one more change in them that occurred during the early years of production—their composition was switched from copper-nickel to bronze by the Mint Act of April 22, 1864. Of note, many of the standard reference claim that the new composition was 95 percent copper and 5 tin or zinc. Folks who know metals and are strict about definitions will point out that copper and zinc make brass alloys, while copper and tin form alloys of bronze. Whatever the definition though, the result was the weight of each cent went from 4.67 grams of copper-nickel down to 3.11 grams of the new composition, which we can imagine was a necessary money saver for the government.

For those of us more interested in getting a bargain while building a collection, these lower weight Indian Head cents came out in such a torrent that many of them are quite easy on the wallet today. And for any collectors who want the best of the best, the Indian Head cents are so avidly collected that it doesn’t take much to find price guides listing virtually every grade of mint state. Believe it or not, there are some good prices for the more common dates in grades such as MS-64 or even MS-65.

 

1864 or 1865 two-cent pieces. We’ve seen that between 1856 and 1864 there were large cents and small, as well as two major designs for the small cents, and three serious changes amid the Indian Head cents. But there is one more addition we might want to make to a collection of copper from these years of change: a two-cent piece.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but the two-cent pieces, first issued in 1864, are the design work of Longacre. He apparently decided that he would go with a patriotic image for this coin, an elaborate federal shield, which would certainly have obvious meaning for the people using it at the time. In 1864 the war that was supposed to have been over in a few months had turned into almost four years of battle and slaughter, and had not yet quite gotten to its end.

The two-cent piece issue of 1864 saw almost 20 million minted in the fourth year of that war, although in two varieties—what are now called a “small motto” and “large motto” version. The latter is by far the more common, at least based on current prices.

The two-cent piece was part of the Act of April, 1864, which as mentioned, also lowered the weight of the cent. This new denomination lasted for a decade, taking it far beyond the Civil War, and giving us 13 pieces to collect today, if we count major varieties and the proof coins of 1873. Overall, we might say the two-cent denomination saw a decrease in output just about every year, although there are a couple of upward swings, in 1868 and in 1873. Since these bigger coppers are not as widely collected as many other U.S. coins, there are some very good buys in the series that the astute collector might be able to lay his or her hands on.

 

The fact that the Mint is still pounding out a huge number of cents, coupled with the fact that there are calls from within Congress (and without) to do something about the cost of making our smallest denomination, means that we might again be nearing a point where there might be some serious changes coming for these little workhorse coins. It’s tough to see the future. But we can look to the past and assemble a set of coppers from a time when the U.S. changed from a hefty large cent to the smaller size we still use today. If you haven’t thought about it before, now may very well be a great time to look at our changing copper coins.



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Comments
On May 10, 2017 Russell Doughty said
The wreath on the reverse of the FEC could be attributed to Longacre, but the obverse design was a product by Christian Gobrecht after a sketch by Titian Peale.
On May 11, 2017 Rebel said
How about they stop destroying the dollar instead.  The cost of production has not gone up.  The price of metal has not gone up.  The value of the dollar has gone down.

Something to add? Notice an error? Comment on this article.
 



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