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10 Great Cents

Aug 17, 2007
It is safe to say there have been many important coins in the history of the cent denomination. Ranging from expensive and scarce to rather available and inexpensive, important cents take a number of forms, making the top 10 an interesting and diverse group.

The cent was a high priority for the U.S. Mint from its start, with the first cents being minted for circulation in 1793, the year after the Mint opened. Here's my list of the 10 best that have been produced since then.

1. The design of the 1793 Flowing Hair chain cent is credited to Henry Voight. It shows Liberty facing left, with a chain reverse of 15 links-one for each state in the Union. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 were minted with an abbreviated inscription, "UNITED STATES OF AMERI." The remainder of this 36,103-mintage coin carried "AMERICA."

No sooner had the first cents appeared than the critics came out in force. Particularly offensive to some were the chains. The idea was to show unity, but to some the chain represented captivity. The 1793 Flowing Hair chain cent is extremely popular today. It is usually found well-worn. The demand is always far in excess of the supply, which means even a Good-4 commands a $7,750 price tag.

2. Next is the 1856 Flying Eagle cent. In fact, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is technically a pattern, as the Flying Eagle cent was not even authorized until 1857.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cent was basically a test of a new, smaller cent that would not have an intrinsic value anywhere near its face value. Therefore, it was a bold departure from prior practice. The first 1,000 were given out to congressmen and others in influence in an attempt to win its approval.

It was coined for circulation into 1858, and collectors soon realized the 1856 was far tougher than the 1857 or the 1858. The Mint at the time was a very different sort of place and collectors wanting an 1856 Flying Eagle cent simply went to the Mint and asked for one. The Mint cheerfully provided the coins. We cannot be sure of the initial mintage, but most put it at somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500.

Over the years the 1856 has not been dismissed as a pattern. From the start it was seen as a prized addition to a cent collection. As such, the coins were selling for $1 each as early 1859.

The 1856 was hoarded by the wealthy collectors of the late 1800s and early 1900s, with famous hoards in some cases topping 500 examples. The significance of those hoards can be seen in today's list price of $6,250 for an 1856 in G-4. The 1856 ranks as a truly significant coin not only because it is scarce but also because it opened the door to the idea of a small cent.

3. In 1859 an entirely new cent appeared with James B. Longacre's Indian Head obverse. The 1859 was important as a one-year transitional piece. The following year the design on the reverse was changed to show an oak wreath and a small shield.

Fortunately, despite only being produced for one year, the 1859 had a high mintage of 36,400,000. It is available today at $12.50 in G-4, $215 in Mint State-60, and $3,200 in MS-65.

4. The 1877 Indian Head cent is next on my list. It had a mintage of 852,500 and was quickly recognized as being scarce. It remains tough today, listing at $590 in G-4, $2,850 in MS-60, and $8,750 in MS-65.

5. The 1908-S Indian Head cent is important for a very simple reason. It was the first cent to be produced at any facility other than Philadelphia. Until a couple years earlier, there had been a stipulation in the law that coins containing no gold or silver could only be produced at Philadelphia. That somewhat unusual idea had been the result of Western mining interests who wanted nothing to do with coins not containing the metals they were mining. That feeling was especially strong during the 1870s, when the price of silver was declining.

Finally, in the early 1900s, the law was changed, as lower denominations were needed even in the West, and having them shipped from Philadelphia when there were mints in San Francisco and Denver was ridiculous.

The 1908-S was the first cent to be produced in San Francisco, with Denver joining in with cent production starting in 1911.

It is clear the 1908-S was noticed as it was saved in some numbers, making it available today at just $60 in G-4, $275 in MS-60, and $650 in MS-65. The price of a G-4 is unusually close to the MS-60 simply because the 1908-S was a bigger deal than we might think today and that meant significant saving at the time it was released.

6. The 1909 V.D.B. Lincoln cent is also a coin of great importance. Prior to the 1909 V.D.B. no circulating coin of the United States had depicted a famous American. Although Washington had already appeared on the 1900 Lafayette commemorative silver dollar, the idea of not using depictions of real Americans on circulating coins dated from his time. He had joined the House of Representatives in blocking the use of his image on coins.

This held until Teddy Roosevelt came along with the idea that the centennial of Lincoln's birth should be noted on a circulating coin. The artist selected by Roosevelt, Victor D. Brenner, contributed to the fame of the first Lincoln cent by having his initials on the reverse.

Officials had actually approved that idea, but when they saw the first Lincoln cent they changed their minds and the V.D.B. was ordered removed. Before the initials could be removed, 27,995,000 of the new 1909 V.D.B. cents had been produced at Philadelphia, which was enough to make them available today at just $9.50 for an MS-60 and $100 for an MS-65.

The price indicates the heavy saving. Like the 1908-S, the 1909 V.D.B. was much more important than we might think. Many opposed the idea of using famous Americans on the circulating coins, but eventually the nation's coinage would become literally a portrait gallery of historic figures. That all started with the 1909 Lincoln cent.

7. The 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent can probably be best described as the 1877 of the following century. What is special about the 1909-S V.D.B. is that it had a mintage of just 484,000 before the order came down to remove the initials. That made it instantly a valuable and popular cent.

The 1909-S V.D.B. was readily saved as can be seen in the numbers of examples available today in grades like About Uncirculated-50 and up. Even so, generation after generation of collectors have tried to find a 1909-S V.D.B. in circulation, making it the most desired coin by collectors for years. The 1909-S V.D.B. lists for $550 in G-4, $1,300 in MS-60, and $6,750 in MS-65.

8. The cents of 1943 are special as they are really souvenirs of World War II. In an attempt to conserve copper for the war effort, it was decided that an alternative alloy for the cent was needed and that turned out to be zinc-coated steel.

The new steel cents, which were subject to rusting, were unpopular with the public. The 1943 zinc-coated steel cents would be produced for just one year, with cents of the next couple years being made from recycled shell cases.

The 1943 zinc-coated steel cents, though readily available at low prices, are popular today because of their link to the war. A set of three MS-65 examples from Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver can be had for around $25.

9. The numismatic world was surprised back in 1955 by the discovery that some 1955 cents were doubled on the obverse. The 1955 doubled-die cent was a national sensation and it has kept its popularity. Prices today range from $1,350 in Extremely Fine-40 to $34,500 in MS-65.

10. The final coin on my list of most important cents is the one everyone takes for granted and that is the 1959 Lincoln cent with the Memorial reverse. It is readily available, but the real story is not its price, but its creation to mark the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln cent.

Under the law, once a coin has been in circulation for 25 years the Treasury Department can order a change without consulting Congress. The Lincoln Memorial reverse was the last time a Treasury secretary changed a design using that power, which makes it an important coin.

It will be interesting to see what happens in 2009, when this design reaches its half century anniversary. From the historic to the popular, from the scarce to the common, the most important cents of the United States are a fascinating group. A few others could probably be added to such a list but in every case the 10 most important cents have excellent reasons for standing out in what has now been more than two centuries of very interesting cents.
About the Author
Coins Collecting Numismatic Portal and Rare Coins Directory. Coins Collecting covers Ancients, World Coins, US Coins, Currency and all numismatic resources for the rare coin collector. The most comprehensive coin collecting site on the web. Visit us at http://www.coins-collecting.info
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