Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Coins You Can Find - Indian Head Cent - The Beginning

The Birth of the Indian Head Cent

Indian Head Penny

The half-dollar-sized large cent was struck from 1793 to 1857, authorized by the Mint Act of 1792 which defined the Cent as 1/100 dollar. That coin was intended to contain close to a cent's worth of copper, as people expected that coins contain close to their face values in metal. Nevertheless, because of the constitutional clause making only gold and silver legal tender, the government would not accept copper cents for taxes or other payments. By the early 1850s, fluctuations in the price of copper led the U.S. Mint to seek alternatives, including reducing the size of the cent and experimenting with compositions other than pure copper. The result was the Flying Eagle cent composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The Flying Eagle cent was struck in limited numbers as a pattern coin in 1856, then for circulation in 1857 and 1858.

Flying Eagle Penny

The Flying Eagle cent was issued in exchange for worn Spanish colonial silver coins, which had circulated widely in the United States. These "small cents" were also issued in exchange for the copper coins they had replaced. By 1858, Mint authorities found the piece unsatisfactory in production. The high points on both sides of the coin (the eagle's head and the wreath) opposed each other, and it was difficult to get the design to be brought out fully in the hard copper-nickel alloy. Mint Engraver James B. Longacre, designer of the Flying Eagle cent, was instructed to develop alternative designs. He produced one, showing a slimmer eagle, which would not clash as much with the reverse wreath. Although this would have solved the production problem, the Mint Director, James Ross Snowden, didn't like the design. Snowden suggested a head of Columbus as an obverse design, but Longacre felt the public would not approve of a historic figure on an American coin.

In 1858, the Mint tested new designs for the cent. Between 60 and 100 sets of twelve pattern coins were struck, consisting of the standard Flying Eagle obverse, a "scrawny eagle" pattern, and the Indian Head design, mated with four different wreaths for the reverse. Snowden would make his choice of what design would be struck in 1859 from these patterns; the sets were also sold to collectors. In April that year a Mr. Howard wrote to Snowden that "I have learned that a new pattern piece for the cent has been struck off at the Mint [with] a head resembling that of the three dollar piece and on the reverse a shield at the top of the olive and oak wreath", and asking to purchase a specimen. Other numismatists also sought pieces: R. Coulton Davis, a Philadelphia druggist with ties to the Mint, wrote to Snowden in June informing him of a favorable story in a Boston newspaper, and Augustus B. Sage wrote to the Mint Director the same month, asking for a specimen for himself, and one for the newly founded American Numismatic Society.

According to Walter Breen, Snowden most likely chose the combination of the Indian Head and the laurel wreath as it was the lowest relief of any of the options, and could be expected to strike well. On November 4, 1858, Snowden wrote to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb about the Indian Head design, and two days later wrote to Longacre, informing him that it was approved. Longacre was to prepare the necessary dies for production, which would begin on January 1, 1859.

Up Next: Design

Photo courtesy of Coin HELP!
Brief history of IHC from Wikipedia - Used under CC BY-SA license


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