You probably know about the regular 1859 Indian Head cent — an
issue for which 36.4 million coins were struck.
The Flying Eagle cent, introduced in 1857, had problems with
striking. The heavy wreath on the reverse was opposite the eagle’s
head and tail on the obverse. In a coining press, the positions of the
dies caused those obverse features to be weak unless careful
adjustments were made.
The Indian motif solved this — the wreath on the reverse, of a
different design and in lower relief, was opposite shallow lettering
on the obverse die. The high relief part — the Indian Head depiction
of Miss Liberty — was in the center, and it struck up properly.
The 1859 cent had a wreath composed of olive or laurel leaves (the
Mint used both terms). For reasons not known, at least to me, toward
the end of the year a change in the design was made.
The wreath was replaced with a wider one, with oak and other
leaves and with a shield at the apex. In 1860, this became the regular
design, and 20,566,000 were struck for circulation.
The origin of the new modified design is related by a letter from
Mint Director James Ross Snowden to the Treasury Department, Dec. 13,
1859, stating that a change of the reverse design would be desirable,
and enclosing specimens to illustrate the new concept. Secretary of
the Treasury Howell Cobb approved the new design the next day.
Soon afterward, perhaps a thousand or so circulation strikes (not
Proof patterns) were made by combining an 1859 obverse with the
reverse of 1860 to augment the few samples made earlier. I estimate
that perhaps as many as several hundred are known, nearly always seen
in Mint State. These have been traditionally called patterns and have
not been publicized. I suggest that they are not patterns at all. If
they had been intended as such, it seems that they would have been
made in Proof format and would have been produced in small numbers.
As 1859 Indian Head, Reverse of 1860 cents are at least four to
five times more rare than 1856 Flying Eagle cents, if they were
publicized and listed in A Guide Book of United States Coins, they
would be valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, these
“secret” coins in choice Mint State usually sell in the very low four figures.
In the 1957 edition of Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of
United States Coins, these are indeed listed as regular issues — no
collection of Indian Head cents can be complete without one! What do
Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries
director of Whitman Publishing LLC.
can be reached at his private email,
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