Indian Head cents, first minted in 1859 and last in 1909, continue to be among the most popular American series. Although some dates are scarcer than others, none is in the “impossible” category. In all series, coins struck in copper can have excellent eye appeal in all grades — from well-worn to Mint State. A popular category is Fine, on which all of the letters in LIBERTY are discernible, although BER may be weak.
The 1859 stands alone as a one-year type, with the reverse displaying an olive or laurel wreath (the Mint used both terms). These were struck in copper-nickel metal, an alloy used until changed to copper on March 22, 1864. In 1859, pattern cents were made with a shield on the reverse. It could be that some were indeed made for circulation, for the mintage is estimated at 1,200 pieces — far too high for a normal pattern. Every now and again it is proposed that these be listed in the Guide Book among regular issues. Indeed, this was done in the last (18th) edition of Wayte Raymond’s Standard Catalogue of United States Coins.
Coinage was accomplished at the Philadelphia Mint, with the addition of San Francisco issues in 1908 and 1909. Indian Head cents remained in circulation in quantity into the 1930s, then became scarce. When I began looking through coins in circulation in the early 1950s, I found only one Indian Head cent — a 1906. In contrast, Liberty Head nickels were seen now and then, and among silver coins, well-worn Barber half dollars could be occasionally found in pocket change.
In the late 1950s, dealer Jim Ruddy endeavored to acquire Indian Head cents in quantity, offering five cents each for them in bulk — and gathered about a half-million pieces.
Proof Indian Head cents were and are a separate specialty; the first coin I ever ordered by mail was a Gem Proof 1859 Indian Head cent for $11 from the Copley Coin Company (Maurice M. Gould and Frank Washburn in Boston) in the late 1950s. The Proof 1864-L was and is the Holy Grail of the series. Whenever a Gem comes up for sale, the room is up for grabs and the sky seems to be the limit. Fewer than 100 Proofs in all grades are known to exist.
Fifty-coin bank-wrapped rolls of Indian Head cents were seen now and again in the marketplace in the 1950s into the early 1960s. These were usually dated from 1879 onward, although I recall that dealer Dave Nethaway had a roll of 1908-S at the August 1956 American Numismatic Association convention in Chicago. The most common date was the high-mintage 1907. Gems sold for about a dollar each at coin club meetings. The 1873 Doubled Die LIBERTY cent became a sensation in the marketplace when it was popularized in the 1960s. Today, pieces in all grades remain in strong demand.