UNITED STATES SMALL CENTS
see it every day, yet we take it for granted.
Small Cent has been with us since 1856. It succeeded
Cent, first introduced in 1793. By the time
the Small Cent was introduced, its predecessor was
already antiquated. Twice during the history of the Large Cent, the metal content of the coin became so
expensive to purchase that the manufacture exceeded
its face value. The Large Cent had been unpopular since the 1840s. It was
really too large, it became unsightly once it
circulated and toned and it was too heavy. Since only
silver and gold coins were legal tender, banks and
merchants often refused to accept the coins in
commerce unless they were deeply discounted below face
final straw came when, in 1851, it began costing the
Mint $1.06 to strike a dollar face value in 1-cent
coins. Congressional lobbyists and Mint officials
sprang into action. The lobbyists were particularly
interested in ensuring nickel would be used in a new
coin denomination since the nickel monopoly had
significant influence on the Mint. Mint
officials began experimenting with pattern coins to
see what alternatives to the costly Large Cent could
be invented. The impact from it wasn’t great
at the time, but New York dentist Dr. Lewis
Feuchtwanger proposed a Small Cent of what he
called “argentan” or “American silver”
(actually German silver composition) as early as 1837.
It was this pattern that, intentionally or not, became
the model for our Small Cent. Joseph Wharton,
who owned the nickel mines, got his way. Mint Director
James R. Snowden decided to strike a Small Cent of 88
percent copper and 12 percent nickel at a weight of
4.67 grams (Large Cents have a weight of 10.89 grams
and are composed of pure copper beginning in 1795).
Small Cents, the Flying Eagle issue dated 1856, was actually
made at Snowden’s direction without congressional
approval. Although to this day no one has ever
complained, technically this is an unauthorized issue
falling under the same jurisdiction with the Secret
Service as does the 1804 silver
dollar, 1913 Liberty
Head nickel and the 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double
eagle. Of these non-authorized issues only the double
eagle coin has ever been confiscated. The Flying
Eagle cent of 1856 is considered to be a pattern. The
general issue coins of the same design are those of
1857 and 1858. The Christian Gobrecht design for the
Flying Eagle appearing on the reverse of the Gobrecht
dollar was used as the obverse for the cent. The
reverse wreath by James B. Longacre was borrowed from
the gold dollar and $3 coins already in
No one really knows why the Flying
Eagle design was so short lived, but the reason may be
that it was so difficult to fully strike the design.
The tail feathers are typically weak, even on Mint
The Flying Eagle cent was followed by a one-year
type Indian Head cent without a shield at the top of
the closed laurel wreath on the reverse in 1859 and
the design including the shield on the reverse above
the open oak wreath between 1860 and 1909. Longacre designed this coin entirely. The Indian Head
cents of 1859 to 1864 are comprised of the same 4.67 grams of 88 percent copper
and 12 percent nickel as the Flying Eagle cent.
The Small Cent
began to resemble what we find in
our pockets today during 1864 when the metal composition was changed to 95 percent
copper, five percent tin and zinc with a reduced weight of 3.11 grams. The diameter
remained at 19 millimeters. There are some interesting coins in this series.
Longacre’s initial “L” appears in the ribbon on the obverse of some of the later bronze
composition 1864 cents, but was removed on later strikes. There is an important
doubled die coin in 1873, 1877 is a scarce coin with a very low mintage and in 1908 the San
Francisco Mint struck the 1-cent denomination for the first
time (all 1-cent
denomination coins were struck at Philadelphia until
1908; in 1911, the Denver Mint struck the cent
denomination for the first time).
Although the Indian Head cent design
to be popular, during 1909 it was announced the design would be changed
favor of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln designed by Victor D. Brenner to commemorate
the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Longacre had received criticism for
the display of his initial on the Indian Head cent of 1864. Now Brenner received the same
criticism for his initials VDB appearing on the 1909 cent.
The year 1909, as a result, has six major 1-cent
coin types and varieties to collect. There is an Indian Head cent, a Lincoln cent
initials and another without; all struck at both Philadelphia without a Mint mark and at San
Francisco with a Mint mark.
The new Lincoln cent obverse was destined to become the most
consistent design in American coin history. It is still in use today and appears to be
destined for continuous use at least through the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
Legislation is now being considered (in early 2000) for a special commemorative
Cent to mark
the anniversary. Regarding Brenner’s initials, they were
removed from the Cent beginning in 1910, however the initials were restored without fanfare
below the truncation on the obverse beginning in 1918 and have appeared on the coin ever
The Lincoln/Wheat ears
Cent of 1909 to 1958
includes some interesting rarities. The classics are the very low mintage 1914-D, the
over-polished die resulting in the 1922-D without Mint mark issue, low mintage 1931-S and
the classic error 1955 doubled die coin. The Lincoln cent was introduced to the same
metal specifications as the Indian Head cent of 1864 to 1909.
The metal content was
changed to a 2.7 gram, zinc-coated steel coin in 1943 due to a shortage of other metals
during World War II. This became a one-year variety as the metal proved to be unpopular
with the public. People claimed to confuse the 1943 cent with the dime. A numismatic
writer said the steel cents were eventually dumped into the ocean where they poisoned
the fish. There are some rare off-metal strikes of the
1943 cent caused by copper blanks left in the coining hopper from the year before.
1943 coins sprayed with copper or altered 1948 cents.
Between 1944 and 1946 the cent was made from
spent ammunition cartridge cases. The weight of the coin is 3.11 grams with a
composition of 95 percent copper and five percent zinc.
The 95 percent copper, five percent
tin and zinc composition of earlier issues was resumed in 1947.
In 1959 the reverse of the Lincoln cent was
changed to that of the Lincoln Memorial to mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s
birth. The new reverse design is by Frank Gasparro. Rumors circulated of a wheat ear
reverse cent of 1959, but no genuine mule specimen has ever been
encountered. The Lincoln Memorial reverse made the Lincoln
cent the first US coin on which the same person appears on both sides. A statue of
Lincoln can be seen within the memorial. Since that time the 1999 New Jersey quarter
dollar has been issued with George Washington appearing on both sides (Washington stands
in the boat going across the Delaware River on the
reverse). Beginning in mid 1962, the composition of the
Cent was altered to 95 percent copper and five percent zinc as a cost saving measure.
Die modifications followed in 1969, 1973 and 1974. The diameter has never been altered
since the Small Cent was introduced. There are some interesting major varieties
within the Lincoln Memorial reverse series, but the scarcest is the 1995
doubled die caused
by a rotation of the pivot.
Eagle Type (1856-1858)
courtesy of Heritage Numismatic Auctions
Heritage Numismatic Auctions
- Wheat Reverse (1909-1958)
Heritage Numismatic Auctions
Lincoln Head -
Memorial Reverse (1959-Date)