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Popular Cent Coins: Indian Head and Lincoln "Wheat" Cents

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Certain coin series have remained popular for decades with the coin collecting community.  Two of these series are Indian Head Cents and Lincoln Wheat Cents.   

Indian Head Cents

The Indian Head design was first used in 1859 to replace the Flying Eagle cent.  The coin was struck on the same copper-nickel alloy as the Flying Eagle cent for the first 5 years, from 1859 to 1864.  A bronze alloy of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc was used thereafter from 1864 to 1909.  The coin faced widespread popularity as the design was appealing and symbolic of American culture.  The small size proved far more convenient than the earlier large cents it replaced.  These large cents were approximately the size of a modern dollar coin and were unpopular with the public for that reason. 

Red or Brown? Like other copper coinage, Indian Head cents initially had a bright red-orange surface when minted, but quickly toned to a dull brown color as the copper oxidized.  Well-preserved coins may have kept some of their initial color, particularly if they were kept in a dry climate.  These coins are usually described as "red" cents in coin listings, and are worth slightly more than coins of the same grade that have turned "brown."    

Beware of Cleaned Coins: As with other copper coins, some "red" Indian Head cents may have been cleaned.  Cleaning a coin often removes the original mint luster and many finer details of the coin's design, thus sharply reducing its value.  If a coin is suspicious, carefully inspect the surface prior to buying.  If the coin is online, enlarge the photographs if necessary and make sure the seller has a return policy.  Another safe way to avoid damaged coins is to only buy coins certified by one a reputable 3rd party grading service, such as PCGS, ANACS, or NGC.

Indian Head Cents can be purchased from local coin stores, through mail-order vendors, or through online auctions.  This site contains a page for online auctions and price resources for Indian Head and Wheat cents

Lincoln Wheat Cents

Abraham Lincoln was placed on the cent starting in 1909 to commemorate his 100th birthday. The cent was the first circulating US coin to bear a portrait of a historical figure. Previous coins showed a symbolic image representing liberty, rather than a specific person.  The reverse contained the words "One Cent", enclosed by two wheat stalks.  This coin series is often described as "Wheat Cents" in order to avoid confusion with modern Lincoln cents which show the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse.

Most dates and mint marks are fairly common, making it possible for collectors to purchase coins in the uncirculated grades at reasonable prices.  Rare dates include the 1909-S, 1909-S V.D.B. (the designer's initials), 1914-D, 1922 (no "D"), and 1931-S.  As with other coins, untarnished "red" coins typically sell for more than similarly-graded tarnished "brown" cents.  Beware that some "red" cents may have been cleaned.  Lincoln cents are often collected and sold in roles, or in completed sets by year.  Circulated cents are often sold in large volumes.  Often the seller will advertise the bags as "unsearched", with the insinuation that particularly valuable date/mint mark combinations await the patient collector.  Collectors may indeed find some less common dates, but should not expect to find a 1909-S V.D.B cent inside!

Lincoln Wheat Cents can be purchased from local coin stores, through mail-order vendors, or through online auctions.  This site contains a page for online auctions and price links for Indian Head and Wheat Cents

Jefferson "War" Nickels

Due to a scarcity of nickel and copper during World War II, Congress altered the alloy of the nickel from its usual composition of 75% copper, 25% nickel to 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese.  Well-preserved coins have a bright silvery appearance and circulated coins will quickly oxidize to a dark color.  These coins were minted from 1942 to 1945.  They can be distinguished from typical nickels by a large mint mark on the reverse above monticello.  They were struck as the Philidelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints.  This coin series marked the only time the United States has issued a 5 cent coin containing silver since the half-dime was discontinued in 1873.  It was also the first time the mint used a "P" mint mark for coins minted in Philidelphia.  Coins struck at the Philidelphia mint typically contained no mint mark until 1979.

War nickels remain popular curiosity among collectors.  Many were squirrled away by collectors and speculators at the time of their issue in part due to their silver content.  Many coins therefore remain in almost uncirculated and mint state grades, allowing modern collectors to buy nice coins at affordable prices. 


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