Founded shortly after the founding of the United States itself, the US Mint has long since been producing the coinage of both the US as well as that of other countries too. In the early days, the US Mint was founded in and operated out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but due to the expansive nature of the early United States, additional facilities needed to be constructed. With each new facility came a new identifying mintmark that was added to each coin to show where they were made.
Throughout its storied history, the US Mint has created many different types of coins at different points in time. One of the first coin-types ever produced, however, is known as the single cent penny. Pennies were and still are incredibly useful for Americans on a day to day basis and are one of the longest-lasting types of coins produced by the mint.
Of all the pennies ever produced, the Indian Head style is one of the most popular, especially for collectors. These coins were minted just prior to the Civil War and continued being produced until shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The following few sections will discuss, in-depth, more about these coins as well as why they are so popular amongst collectors nowadays.
Indian Head Penny History
The origins of the Indian Head Penny can be traced back to the days when the Large-Cent coin was the only one in circulation. These coins were first minted in 1793, but faced immediate problems seeing as the US government would not allow any metals other than silver and gold to be used as legal tender. Because of this, the Large-Cents were not able to be used to pay taxes or any other government payment.
Then, by the dawn of the 1850s, fluctuations in the price of copper forced the US Mint not only to reduce the size of their pennies (Large-Cents were about the same size as a modern Half-Dollar) but to also look for compositions of metal that were not solely pure copper. Due to this need, the US Mint came up with the Flying Eagle Penny, which was produced shortly from 1856-1858. This coin differed from traditional pennies in that it was comprised of less than 90% copper. Unfortunately, these coins quickly experienced design problems and needed to be replaced. Their replacement was the Indian Head Penny, which made its first appearance on the market in 1859.
Indian Head Penny Design
The design of the Indian Head Penny was the brainchild of James Longacre, the acting engraver of the US Mint. In a letter to the director of the US Mint James Snowden, Longacre made his case for his newly incepted design by saying:
“From the copper shores of Lake Superior, to the silver mountains of Potosi from the Ojibwa to the Aramanian, the feathered tiara is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic. Nor is there anything in its decorative character, repulsive to the association of Liberty … It is more appropriate than the Phrygian cap, the emblem rather of the emancipated slave, than of the independent freeman, of those who are able to say “we were never in bondage to any man”. I regard then this emblem of America as a proper and well defined portion of our national inheritance; and having now the opportunity of consecrating it as a memorial of Liberty, ‘our Liberty’, American Liberty; why not use it? One more graceful can scarcely be devised. We have only to determine that it shall be appropriate, and all the world outside of us cannot wrest it from us.”
The design you will find on the obverse side of the Indian Head Penny is said to depict Lady Liberty wearing a traditional Native American headdress. Other legends hold that the image is actually James Longacre’s daughter, Sarah. The legend claims that the young Ms. Longacre was at the Mint the same day as Native American visitors, and when wearing one of their headdresses, James Longacres made a quick sketch. Unfortunately, this story is likely nothing more than a fabrication seeing as Sarah Longacre was 30 years of age at the time the design was created—not 12.
The design of the obverse side of the coin was and still is the center of some controversy, because what is really depicted is a Caucasian woman wearing the headdress of Native Americans. Though this is not the first time a US coin sported the image of a non-Native American donning a Native headdress, it is something that adds a lot of intrigue to the coin.
The reverse side of the Indian Head Penny is quite basic, and features a wreath surrounding the “one cent” face value. For the first two years of production, you will find this basic design on the reverse side, but by 1860 the coin’s reverse was updated. Though the wreath still partially encircled the “one cent” face value, a presidential seal was added to the top of the coin, and the wreath itself became a bit more intricate in its design.
Indian Head Penny Values
For collectors, the Indian Head Penny is so popular not only because of the years in which it was minted, but also because of the historical significance this coin holds. Seeing as the first years of the Indian Head’s production fell just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, collectors see these pieces as a part of American history. For this reason, you will find that many of the coins produced through the first ten years of the Indian Head’s existence sell nowadays for a much higher price than other editions.
Another aspect of these coins that makes them so popular is their age. It is very rare that coins are able to survive more than 100 years, and with many surviving in excellent condition, it is easy to see why collectors go head over heels for these pieces.
When it comes down to it, the popularity of Indian Heads varies from release to release. While some editions are extremely difficult to find, others exist in abundance. Almost always, you will find that the scarcest Indian Heads are those produced during the early years. These are the coins that are not only the most sought after, they are also the most expensive.
Indian Head Penny