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This 19th Century Cent Design Lasted For Only One Year

By Dr. Thomas F. Fitzgerald – Republished with Permission from The California Numismatist [Fall 2008 Volume 5 Number 3]

1859 Indian centThe one-cent denomination is unique in our nation’s monetary history. It was first struck in 1793, the year that the Philadelphia Mint, located on Seventh St. between Market and Arch, began minting coins for the new nation. With the exception of 1815, this denomination has been struck every year from 1793 through the present day, a total of 214 years of one-cent coins. They may truly be called the “King of U.S. Coins.”

Yet during this tenure of 214 years, only in 1793 and in 1859 was there a change of design after only one year. The first year of minting one-cent pieces in 1793 included three major types while the other, in the middle of the 19th century, saw a change on the reverse after only one year. This is the story of that Indian Head one-cent design.

Note, this article speaks only about major design types, not metallic differences such as the zinc-steel cents of 1943 or the new composition of the present-day Lincoln cents.

The Need For A Change

The large copper cents were never popular and by the 1840s the resistance to them had increased significantly. It was said that they were just too heavy and too fi lthy. In addition, these large coppers were not legal tender at this time and many banks and stores refused to accept them. In 1850 Rep. Samuel Vinton, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, notified the Mint of a proposal to issue wing-shaped cents of a billon composition.

Meanwhile, Joseph Wharton, who held a monopoly of the nickel mines in the Western Hemisphere, was avidly promoting the use of nickel for coinage.

Beginning in 1853, when the cost of producing the large cents was more than one-cent each and the copper planchets were hard to obtain, various proposals for a new cent coin were tried. An alloy composed of copper, nickel and zinc, was struck. These attempts continued for several years through 1855. At the same time, Mint Director James R. Snowden feared that Congress, not the Mint, would make the decision regarding the replacement of the large cents with smaller coins. He was determined this prerogative should remain with him.

Finally, in 1856, Snowden decided on an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel for the new cents.

hand-drawn art by artist, photographer, and numismatic author Charles Daughtrey An image of James Longacre, designer of the Indian Head cent, from the gallery of hand-drawn art by artist, photographer, and numismatic author Charles Daughtrey.

Charles maintains a Web site at where signed and numbered limited editions of his prints of famous numismatic figures can be found.

Charles also maintains sites at and

Charles can also be reached via e-mail at

But there were problems with the new small cents. Perhaps the weak strikes of the Flying Eagle cents caused Mint Director Snowden to instruct James B. Longacre to prepare dies for a new one-cent piece to replace the Flying Eagle cents. By 1858, pattern-test coinage for a newly designed one-cent piece was undertaken by Longacre.

At least 12 different 1858-dated pattern cents were struck. On December 6, 1856, he wrote to Treasury Secretary Guthrie “I have caused a few hundred specimens of the proposed new cents to be struck.”

He proposed to send some of these coins to each member of congress and the new small cents were distributed on February 2, 1857 to the following government officials:

President Franklin Pierce – 4
Treasury Secretary Guthrie – 2
House of Representatives – 200

Two days later, on February 4th, Guthrie received 100 more of the new cents and 62 of these went to the Senate. Eventually at least 634 of these coins were distributed. Legislation was introduced and was passed on February 21, 1857 and the release date for the new cents was set for May 25, 1857.

The Indian Head Cent of 1859

Designer Longacre intended his Indian Head motif to be a depiction representing “Liberty” wearing an Indian headdress. He had previously utilized this idea of an Indian representing “Liberty” for his three-dollar gold piece, fi rst struck in 1854. Longacre modified this design, particularly the headdress, for the Indian girl on the new cent. It should be noted that the law at this time did not specifically require a depiction of “Liberty” on the obverse of these coins and gave the Director of the Mint latitude in the designs. In fact, the copper-nickel Indian Head Cents did not become legal tender until Public Law 89-81 was passed in 1865.

When a number of people questioned the use of the Indian, mint engravers explained this was a North American Indian girl. This idea continued to be popular into the 20th Century. However, the Indian on the gold coins of Pratt and Saint-Gaudens and James E. Fraser’s so-called “Buffalo” (really a bison) or Indian five-cent coin, depicted real Indians rather than a girl wearing an Indian headdress.

Mint Director Snowden was very impressed with the new “Indian Head” obverse for the one-cent piece. He wrote, “The obverse, it will be seen, presents an ideal of America – the sweeping plumes of the North American Indian giving it the character of North America.”

Snowden continued, “It contains the usual legend ‘United States of America’ with the word ‘liberty’ on the headband. The reverse is a plain wreath enclosing the denomination of the coin ‘One Cent.’”

Snowden wanted the new designs approved in order to have the dies prepared and ready to strike the new cent pieces by January 1, 1859.

The type of reverse for this cent is sometimes known as the “Olive Wreath” or “Laurel Wreath” type according to The Red Book. Richard Snow, in his book “Flying Eagle & Indian Cents,” describes this 1859 Indian-cent reverse as the “Olive Wreath” reverse and labels this type as “Variety One.”

Cornelius Vermeule, in his fine book: “Numismatic Art in America,” commented that Longacre’s depiction “with the fl owing hair and a few cascading feathers and a necklace” seemed more natural. According to Vermeule, “the coin became perhaps the most beloved and typically American of any piece great or small in the American series.” This writer points out that many others believe the gold coins designed by Bela L. Pratt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the beginning of the 20th Century are superior works of art.

Production of the 1859 One-Cent Coins

With the support of the Congress and the President, the new Indian Head design was approved and the Philadelphia Mint was ready to begin striking the new cents by 1859. The 1859 Indian Head cents, with a mintage of 36.4 million pieces, were all stuck at the mint in Philadelphia. This production of 1859 one-cent pieces was unprecedented, up to this time, in the history of the Philadelphia Mint. In fact, the minting of most other coins was cut short in order to strike the new cents. For example, almost as many 1859 Indian cents were made as the entire Flying Eagle varieties of the previous two years.

The obverse of this design was excellent for striking the coins in high relief because the Indian Head, in the center of the obverse, was opposite the portion of the reverse die that produced the laurel wreath on that side. However, it was soon apparent that the wreath on the reverse of these coins was weak. Perhaps this was due to the design or perhaps it was the consequence of overproduction. At any rate, this reverse design was abandoned after only one year, thus creating a one-year type coin and the subject of this article.

The Civil War Bring Changes

One year later, by 1860, for reasons that are not documented, the Laurel Wreath design on the reverse was discontinued. The Oak Wreath, small shield reverse was utilized on the Indian Head cents from 1860 through the end of the series in 1909. As for the 1859 Indian Head cents, author Richard Snow reports that these coins only circulated for three years before being hoarded during the Civil War coinage crisis. When they reappeared in large numbers late in 1863, they circulated for another 10 years before being melted in the 1870s.

Lincoln Cent Replaces the Indian Head Cent

At the start of the 20th Century, President Theodore Roosevelt took a deep interest in the design of the nation’s circulating coinage. Roosevelt was impressed by the artistry of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and together they set out to redesign the nation’s coins. This partnership created problems as the chief engraver of the mint, Charles E. Barber, believed the designs for the nations coins were his prerogatives.

The coinage law of 1890, that governed the designs of United States coinage, stated the designs of the existing coins had to be struck for at least 25 years before changes could be made without the approval of Congress. As a result, the designs of only three coins could be changed—the Indian Head Cent and the $10 and $20 gold pieces.

Saint-Gaudens undertook to redesign the $10 and $20 gold coins and the one-cent piece at the same time. Unfortunately, his critical health problems prevented him from completing this task. In fact, he had submitted new ideas for only the two gold pieces at the time of his death in 1907. As a result, the new designs of the gold pieces had to be completed by his assistant, Henry Hering. The one-cent denomination remained for a future artist.

Victor D. Brenner, who was born June 12, 1871 in Savly, Russia, migrated to the United States in 1890. While in America, Brenner developed an obsession about President Abraham Lincoln. As the centennial of Lincoln’s birth approached in 1909, the artist completed a number of portrait medals and plaques commemorating the Civil War President. President Theodore Roosevelt, with a deep interest in medals and coins, saw to it that Brenner received a commission to portray the President on a Panama Canal service medal. Roosevelt and Brenner became friends and an invitation was issued to Brenner to create a new design for a one-cent piece. There was some dispute over the proposed reverse of this new coin but on February 17, 1909, Victor Brenner submitted a new reverse that featured two stylized ears of wheat.

As the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Lincoln approaches, new design changes for the Lincoln cent are anticipated.

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