By Tom LaMarre
The Indian Head
cent lasted a long time, from the days of the
covered wagon to the Ford Model T, and it was as
much a part of American culture as either one.
The Indian head became the official design on
the cent on New Year’s Day 1859.
By 1899, 1 billion Indian Head cents were in
circulation. The biggest production years were
yet to come.
Until near the end of the series, Indian Head
cents were struck only at the Philadelphia Mint.
In November 1879 newspapers predicted a shortage
of cents because the Philadelphia Mint was
focused on silver dollars as a result of the
Bland-Allison Act. Cent production was
In 1879 there was an order from San Francisco
for $1,000 worth of cents. It was the first
order from the city in many years. Large orders
were also received from Georgia and Alabama.
Newspapers reported strong demand for cents in
1889, resulting in a shortage in the West and
By 1895, there were five men working in the
Minor Coin Department in the Treasury Building.
They did nothing but count cents all day, from 9
a.m. to 4 p.m, taking only a half hour for
Holiday shopping was the reason for a cent
shortage in December 1896. Bright new cents were
often placed in Christmas stockings. They were
also needed to make change.
In February 1903, a so-called “craze” for cents
dated 1902 was reported on Long Island. Word
spread that a careless Mint employee had dropped
a gold bar into the smelter and that the alloy
in cents dated 1902 was partly gold.
Hoarders didn’t have much trouble finding the
coins. Department stores in New York City and
Brooklyn had put out a flood of new 1902 cents
just before Christmas.
The gold rumor was so prevalent that a school
principal had a chemistry class analyze a 1902
cent. There was no gold.
Sometimes, however, truth was stranger than
fiction. In 1904, a New York organ grinder was
fined $2 for letting his monkey climb four
stories up the front of a Riverside Drive
The monkey showed up in court with the organ
grinder, who counted out $1.99, all the money he
had. The monkey saved the day. He reached into a
pocket and handed over a cent to make it an even
A February 1909 newspaper headline said “Indian
Head Pennies to be Coined No More.” After a half
century in production, the Indian Head cent was
about to give way to the Lincoln cent, in honor
of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
The Philadelphia Mint struck only Lincoln cents
after June 1909. The first examples were
released in early August.
Not everyone wanted to see the Indian Head cent
go, but there was no turning back. Today,
collectors love Indian Head cents.
A Very Good-8 1879 cent is valued at $10. The
1909 Indian Head cent has jumped in value
recently and is now listed in Coin Prices at
around $16 in Very Fine-20. The other dates
mentioned here are valued at less than $5 in