After the Flying Eagle cent had briefly been struck for circulation in 1857 and 1858 (in addition to pattern pieces struck in 1856, often included with the two other dates), the Indian Head Cent was introduced in 1859. It would by struck for half a century, and while in most years production was limited to the Philadelphia Mint there are a few dates that are very scarce to downright rare, especially in the higher grades. In this article we will take a look at some of those key-dates that are included in a complete collection of Indian Head Cents, which usually compromises of 55 different issues, including two design changes.
The first scarce date we will take a look at can technically be considered a variety, but because it is also considered a design change it is generally included in a basic set. The 1864-L, struck towards the end of the American Civil War, was the first year of issue struck in bronze, after the Indian Cent had initially been struck in a copper-nickel composition. The 1864-L is so named because of the addition of a tiny L found on the ribbon of Liberty, which is lacking in the previous years. The L is the initial of James Barton Longacre, the designer of the Indian Head Cent. The variety was struck towards the end of the year, compromising a minority of the approximately 39 million cents struck that year. The variety is scarce in lower grades and very scarce in mint state. On lower grade pieces the L is usually missing due to wear; while not valued as highly these pieces can still be identified by a pointed bust, versus a rounded bust on the pieces that lack the L. Approximately 20 Proofs were struck for collectors (most collectors must have already purchased their Proofs earlier in the year before the L was added), making the 1864-L Proofs the rarest Indian Head Cent in Proof format.
The 1877 Indian Head Cent is the undisputed key-date of the series, and one of the scarcer small cents struck since this modified denomination was introduced in 1857. It has the second lowest mintage of the series with 852,500 produced for circulation and 900 Proofs for collectors, the majority of which entered circulation making problem-free circulated examples and uncirculated coins in general are very scarce to rare for the higher grades. While the mintage of the Proofs is in line with other Indian Head Cents of the 1870’s the rarity of the business strike makes it the most highly valued Proof Indian Head Cent after the 1864-L Proof.
While not generally included in a general set, the 1888/7 overdate is still worthy of being mentioned in this article due to it’s rarity and popularity. While there are a few “so-called” overdates known only Snow-1 classifies as a true 1888/7. The most obvious parts of the seven are seen right below the lower left of the bottom loop of the eight and on the upper left of the top loop. On circulated pieces the overdate can be difficult to discern and other identifying markers might be sought. The easiest is a small cud in the denticles above the letters TE on UNITED. The overdate was not identified until 1969, resulting in virtually all examples having entered circulation for decades if not longer. The variety is very scarce in lower circulated grades and downright rare in anything that even remotely resembles uncirculated.
In 1908 the San Francisco struck its first minor coinage after over half a century of gold and silver coinage when 1,115,000 small cents were produced, the third lowest mintage of the series. Many entered circulation while others were saved, making it only somewhat scarce in lower grades. In gem uncirculated condition with full red surfaces this is a very scarce date and very popular as such. Like the 1909-S Indian Head Cent the status as one of just two Branch Mint Indian Head Cents contributes to the popularity of this issue and it is generally somewhat more expensive than would be expected for a coin with a similar survival rate.
The 1909-S has the lowest mintage of the series with a mere 309,000 pieces produced for circulation before the San Francisco Mint received the new Lincoln Cent dies in the middle of the year, ceasing production of the Indian Head cent design after just two issues struck at the San Francisco Mint. As the last Indian Head Cent issue and one of only two struck at the San Francisco Mint this is a very popular issue that is always highly in demand. However, unlike the 1877 this is an issue that did not circulate that extensively and a large quantity (in comparison to the mintage) were saved by collectors and other people interested in saving one of the old cents when the Lincoln Cent was introduced. Full red gems, however, are very scarce and among the priciest of all gem red Lincoln Cents except for a few dates in the late 1860’s and early 1860’s.
Other Scarce Dates
Of the regular dates and major varieties these are the scarcest dates of the Indian Head Cent series. There are, however, a few other dates worth mentioning. The first year of issue, the 1859, is a scarce date that was not saved extensively at the time, making uncirculated pieces scarce. Coins of the early 1870’s are very scarce in circulated grades, especially at the VF/XF level, which are always popular collector grades. Of the late-dates (except for the ones mentioned above) the 1885 and 1894 issues are the scarcest of their respected decades.
As for varieties, there are countless of minor varieties, but there are also a few generally accepted varieties that should be mentioned. The first of these is the 1873 with doubled die reverse, identified by doubled letters in LIBERTY. This is a rare variety usually encountered in lower grades. Other doubled die varieties are known as well, such as 1863, 1870 and 1891. Two 1886 varieties were struck, identified by the position of the bottom right feather in relation to the letters ICA in AMERICA. On the first variety the feather points between the I and the C, while on the second variety it points between the C and the A. The second variety is much scarcer and often included in a more specialized set of Indian Head Cents. Another such variety is the 1894 doubled date, which is a widely repunched date and easily identified as such.