Difficulty in modifying the Flying Eagle cent design to correct the
problem of short die life and poor strikeability led Chief Engraver
James Barton Longacre to abandon the eagle motif in favor of his new
Indian Head design in 1859.
head and tail of the eagle on the obverse of the copper-nickel Flying
Eagle cent were positioned directly opposite the wreath on the
reverse, creating weakness in the detail of the design with every
The chief engraver had been in his position for
more than a dozen years when he was given the assignment to fix the
existing cent design or produce a new one. At the same time Longacre
produced the Indian Head obverse, three new reverse designs were also
tested. One alternative included a plain oak wreath. The second choice
depicted an oak wreath with a wide ornamented shield above. And the
final selection offered two versions of a plain laurel wreath.
One of the latter two variations - the centered laurel wreath
with low relief - was paired with the obverse Indian Head design to
strike the first coins for circulation in 1859.
style was changed from narrow bust point in 1860 to broad bust point,
possibly to increase die life. A shield was also added on the reverse
between the points of a new, oak wreath.
A year before
the Civil War ended, Congress took action to alter the composition of
the small cents since the necessary coinage metal was in short supply
and it was costing the Mint more than the face value to produce the
The Mint Act of April 22, 1864, amended the Act of
Feb. 21, 1857, by changing the composition of the small cent from the
88 percent copper, 12 percent nickel - established with the Flying
Eagle cent and the first nearly six years of Indian head cent
production - to a bronze alloy of 95 percent copper, 5 percent tin and
This bronze alloy would remain constant throughout
the rest of the Indian Head cent series, which closed its run in 1909.
Along with the 2-cent coin, the bronze Indian Head cents marked the
first token coinage of the United States, being valued only by the
government stamp, not the metal content.
Indian Head cent was released in July 1864. Its production proved
profitable to the federal government, as 3.7 bronze cents could be
reproduced from every recoined copper large cent.
the Civil War, large numbers of cents were hoarded, then later dumped
into circulation, causing a glut. In 1871, this coinage saturation was
alleviated when legislation called for the redemption and recoinage of
all earlier minor coins, allowing financial institutions to redeem
larger amounts of coins.
Enough copper was redeemed to
keep the Mint going for six years.
In 1873, the country's economic woes plunged the nation's populace
to again flood commerce with hoard coins as they could no longer
afford to accumulate them. The new infusion of coins created rarities
of the 1870, 1871 and 1872 dates, causing larger than usual mintages
for the 1874 and 1875.
The Mint's self-imposed stance to
combat high planchets prices by not buying them certain years resulted
in lower production in 1885, 1886 and 1894. The Mint began making its
own cent planchets in 1908.
Indian Head cents were all
struck at the Philadelphia Mint, except in 1908 and 1909, when
examples were also struck at the Mint production facility in San
Francisco. Mintage was low for the 1908-S issues since the San
Francisco Mint, rocked by the Great Earthquake two years earlier, had
only one press available to produce cents.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: