THE CENTS OF 1909, Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 9/1/2006

David Lange explores the ins and outs of one of the most popular years among collectors.

David Lange
The cents dated 1909 have long been favorites with collectors. This was a transitional year in which both James B. Longacre's Indian Head Liberty design and Victor D. Brenner's Lincoln Head design were coined. Each type was struck at both the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints, the Lincoln type both with and without the designer's initials. The result was a total of six collectable varieties. While three of these carry noticeable premiums in all grades, each is within the means of most collectors.

In the fall of 1908, when the U.S. Mint was preparing dies for the 1909 coinage, it was known already that a new type of cent would be introduced. It was also clear by then that this new design would not be finalized in time to commence coining it at the beginning of the year. Thus the Mint's Engraving Department began creating dies dated 1909 of the existing Indian Head type. 1909 was the golden anniversary of Longacre's cent, the only type familiar to most Americans then living. The early issues had been coined in an alloy of copper and nickel, this composition being used until early in 1864. Struck in bronze since thereafter, most dates since 1864 had been produced in sufficient numbers that they were still circulating in 1909.

The 1909 Indian Head cents are distinctive in two ways. In previous years, the date had been applied to each and every obverse die by impressing a four-digit logotype into that working die. The result was a very slight variation in the position of the date relative to other elements of the design, as well as a number of repunched numeral varieties unique to each working die. For the 1909 cents, however, it appears that the date was punched into the master die. All of the working hubs and working dies generated from that master die thus had identical date placements. This was a transition to the new coin types introduced beginning in 1909, all of which had their initial dates of coining sculpted into the artist's original models.

Also distinctive on the 1909 cents is an enlarged letter 'L' on the ribbon that hangs down from Liberty's hair. Perhaps this was an eleventh hour tribute to Mr. Longacre's beloved design that was about to be replaced. All previous issues back to the introduction of the designer's initial in 1864 featured a smaller letter that was challenging to read. On a number of working dies this letter is doubled, indicating that a working hub must have been slightly offset between impressions during the hub raising process. Such doubling was then transferred to all of the dies sunk from that hub.

Both Philadelphia and San Francisco ceased the coining of Indian Head cents in the early spring of 1909, when it appeared that dies of the Lincoln type would be arriving shortly. The eastern mint had by then produced more than 14 million cents, while San Francisco had struck only 309,000 pieces. Had such mintages occurred earlier in the series these issues would be considered scarce and rare, respectively. Because these were the final issues of their type, and thus widely hoarded by collectors and the general public, enough survive that they are affordable in most grades.

1909(P) Indian Head cents are, aside from the features mentioned above, not measurably different from the dates immediately preceding. They are found over a wide range of grades, though ones showing the very heavy wear common to earlier issues are not often seen. As the Indian Head cents in circulation began to be overwhelmed by the vast numbers of Lincoln Cents coined 1916-20 people started hoarding the older type cents, sparing the later dates from such terminal wear.

Mint State examples of the 1909(P) cent may be found with nearly full, original mint red color. Such coins typically were pulled from the centers of old bank-wrapped rolls, though the supply of these appears to be exhausted. Most survivors have minor spotting and staining, since the high-quality storage products available today did not arrive in time to spare them. More attractive to my eye are examples having mellowed red color or a balanced blend of red and brown, sans spotting and staining. While some softness of strike may be seen in the feathertips on many 1909(P) cents, this date is on average a bit better struck than the years immediately preceding.

Despite their low mintage 1909-S Indian Head cents are not rare in most grades. They certainly are scarce enough to command a premium in all grades, and this issue is in constant demand from collectors. As with its Philadelphia Mint counterpart, this coin is seldom seen in very heavily worn condition, as it was a "keeper" from the outset. Mint State 1909-S cents reveal weak feathertips, which evidently was due to a deficiency in the single obverse die used for this issue. Fully red examples are quite rare, due in part to the tendency of 'S' Mint cents to develop tarnish streaks in what is often described as "woodgrain" pattern. While this unattractive feature is an aid to authenticating these often counterfeited or altered cents, it likewise reduces the number of gem pieces available to collectors.

David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association