The Indian Head Cent, The Precursor to the Wheat Cent

The familiar and trusty small copper penny was not always so small, nor always as the rich amber bronze that we instantly recognize as the Lincoln Cent.  Before the introduction of the Lincoln Wheat Ear Cent in 1909, there was another much loved, bright copper penny in the pockets of Americans, the Indian Head Cent.   It established the look and the color of the “new” cent fifty years earlier, at a time when the public still clung to the heavy, large, familiar Braided Hair Cent.  The Indian Head Cent would eventually become as liked as the old large cents, but fate, and Theodore Roosevelt, gave us the familiar Lincoln Head Cent we use today.

Over 150 years ago, the standard penny weighed about three times as much as the penny of today.  At a massive 13.48 grams of pure copper, the “large cent” certainly felt large in your pocket.  So when the U.S. Mint, in an effort to reduce the demand of copper, changed the weight and correspondingly the size of the standard cent to a tiny 4.67 grams, the public thought it was being duped.  At first people hoarded the old cents, and discounted the new issues as fakes.  Of course, it did not help that the first small cent, the Flying Eagle Cent,  issued in 1856, was so lightly colored and pale through the addition of nickel to the copper that were called “nickels” long before the first 5 cent piece to carry that name.

In order to remedy these problems the U.S. Mint introduced the Indian Head Cent in 1859 and was in continuous production until 1909.  The new coin was better in many ways, first it was the distinct copper color a penny should be.  This was due to the removal of nickel and the substitution of tin and zinc to the copper (so technically speaking the Indian Head Cent, and Wheat Penny for that matter, are bronze, not copper).  The Indian Head Cent was also easier to produce than the Flying Eagle Cent, and the design was well regarded as beautiful and befitting a U.S. coin.  So why was it replaced?  The answer lies in one man’s vision, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt wanted to revamp the state of U.S. coins at the turn of the twentieth century.  He belived that America needed new coinage to keep up with the new coinage from Europe.  So, as popular and internationally known medal and coin engraver St. Gaudains had recently put his talents to the Dollar,  and as Roosevelt wanted a chance to honor Abraham Lincoln, T.R. instigated a campaign to win public support for the idea of placing Lincoln’s image an a new one cent coin.  Because Lincoln was even more popular in the 1900’s then as he is today, Roosevelt soon had the support he needed to change the coin.

With the new coin’s introduction in 1909, the era of the Indian Head Cent was over, but not lost.  These cents are now highly valued in the their proud owner’s collections, and hopefully will remain there for some time.

Monday, December 31st, 2012 Blog

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