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Indian Heads in Demand
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 temporarily suspended.

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 South.

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 lunch.

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 mansion.

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 $2.

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 VF-20.


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