For the most part, Unit C of our excavations has mostly produced nails, glass and ceramic shards, and a few fragments of small animal bones but last Friday (06/02) we uncovered an 1882 Indian Head penny. This type of penny has been popular among coin collectors ever since they began to be produced (though it suffered a small decline in popularity between the 1930s-1960s, possibly because the bronze version of the Indian Head cent was still in circulation and may have been overlooked as too common for notice). However, due to the advanced age of the coin, it’s a bit more of a collectors item for modern numismatists who wish to expand their collections, especially desired are those specimens with lesser wear (though some is expected since even the newest of the original Indian Heads are about 126 years old now).
Indian Head pennies were issued by the United States Bureau of the mint between 1859 and 1909. The ‘Indian Head’ was designed in 1859 by James B. Longacre, an engraver employed by the mint, who was directed to develop alternatives for a previous design of hir (the ‘flying eagle’ design which was issued in exchange for worn Spanish silver coins between 1856-1858) after the design was determined to be too difficult to reliably reproduce in the copper-nickel alloy the coins were to be made of. Longacre finished four possible designs by November when the Indian Head pattern was selected from the options and approved by James Ross Snowden, the director of the Mint at the time. Production began on the first of January, 1859. The original 1859 minting had a laurel wreath on the reverse side that completely encircled the ‘One Cent’ text but in 1860 Snowden decided to alter the design further, leaving the ‘Indian Head’ unchanged but swapping the laurel wreath for an oak leaf wreath that didn’t quite encircle the denomination and a narrow shield design that filled the gap in the wreath. Throughout the 1880s, Longacre’s design was reissued as demand for pennies increased, probably due to a decrease of the cost of stamps making pennies more popular. The design finally ceased to be stamped in 1909 when it was replaced with the modern style of penny featuring Abraham Lincoln on its face in honor of the centennial of the hir birth.
Despite the name, the image on the face of the coin is of not actually of a Native American at all but is actually a white woman who is supposed to be the goddess Liberty wearing the native headdress. According to a popular legend, the facial features of Liberty on the coin were based on Longacre’s young daughter, Sarah, who ze sketched when ze tried on the headdress of a visiting native but Sarah Longacre would have been 30 years old when the design was made rather than the 12 the legend claims and James Longacre hirself not only stated that the face was based that of a statue of Venus, on loan from the Vatican, which ze saw in a Philadelphia museum but after the design was approved in 1858, wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, in which ze denied it was based on any of the features of any member of hir family.
A neat numismatist fact: The most popular pricing guide for US coin collectors is ‘A Guide Book of United States Coins’ by Richard Yeoman (also called The Red Book). The early editions of the guide have become collectible in their own right and there is now a guide book to collecting early editions of the guide book for coin pricing called ‘A Guide Book Of The Official Red Book Of United States Coins’ by Frank J. Colletti.
Additional information about the penny: http://www.usacoinbook.com/coins/306/small-cents/indian-head-cent/1882-P/
Additional information about John B. Longacre: http://www.usacoinbook.com/encyclopedia/coin-designers/james-b-longacre/
- JM Bullion. “Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)”
- JM Bullion. “1882 Indian Head Penny”
- Coin Trackers. “1882 Indian Head Penny”