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UNITED STATES SMALL CENTS
(1856-DATE)

By Richard Giedroyc

We see it every day, yet we take it for granted.

The Small Cent has been with us since 1856. It succeeded the Large 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 value.

The 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).

The first 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 circulation.

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 State specimens.

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 proved to be popular, during 1909 it was announced the design would be changed mid-year in 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 with 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 since.

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. Beware of 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.

Obverse of Flying Eagle Cent   Reverse of Flying Eagle Cent
Flying Eagle Type (1856-1858) 
Images courtesy of  Heritage Numismatic Auctions

Obverse of Indian Head Cent  Reverse of Indian Head Cent
Indian Head Type (1859-1909)
Images courtesy of Heritage Numismatic Auctions

1955 Doubled Die Cent Obverse   1955 Doubled Die Cent Reverse
Lincoln Head - Wheat Reverse (1909-1958)
Images courtesy of Heritage Numismatic Auctions

Lincoln Head - Memorial Reverse (1959-Date)