USA Coin Album: The Year of Three Cents

Posted on 8/13/2019

1864 witnessed the coining of three distinctive issues.

Collectors are often drawn to small subsets of coins that varied within a single year, and among the more prominent examples of such convergence are the three different cent emissions that were produced during 1864. The small copper-nickel one-cent piece that had been introduced in 1857 gave way to a much lighter bronze piece, and two distinctive varieties of the latter resulted before year's end.

The onset of the American Civil War in 1861 had an almost immediate effect on the nation's currency. Both sides funded their war efforts with paper money that was not redeemable in gold or silver on demand, and this led to the hoarding of all hard money by a fearful public. By 1862 even the humble cent was being sequestered for its modest metal value, and the nation faced a severe shortage of small change. After the disappearance of silver coins, cents had been bundled in paper rolls of 25 or 50 cents by merchants as replacements, but now Americans largely had to get by with fractional paper notes issued by either businesses or the Treasury.

A more palatable solution appeared in 1863 with the widespread issuance of commercially manufactured copper tokens. These were thin and had a metal value of just about a quarter cent, so they were not hoarded. Carrying either patriotic or advertising messages, these pieces were issued in huge numbers during 1863-64 until outlawed by the US Congress. This could have been a very unpopular move by the government were it not for a suitable replacement that bore the federal imprint and entered circulation at that same time.

Since 1859, the cent's obverse had displayed a portrait of Liberty adorned in an Indian headdress, and this was paired with a reverse featuring a wreath of laurel (1859 only) or oak (1860 and later). The coin's weight was 72 grains (4.66 grams), giving it a hefty feel, and the composition was an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel. This resulted in a pale, brassy look when new that quickly mellowed to medium brown in circulation.

Worth perilously close to face value, this quality is what led to its hoarding after 1862, and the coins were trading at a 20% premium over face. Huge mintages in 1862-63 did little to restore their circulation, and the US Mint sought a replacement piece that would be less attractive to speculators. It drew inspiration from the small copper tokens of similar diameter but much lesser thickness that had proved successful in circulation.

1864 Copper-Nickel Cent
Click images to enlarge.

The Act of April 22, 1864 authorized a new issue of federal cents weighing just 48 grains (3.11 grams). These were comprised of 95% copper and 5% zinc and tin. The law also prohibited the coining and passing of tokens in imitation of the new coins. While all United States cents made prior to this law had lacked any legal tender value, the new bronze issues were granted such status to the extent of ten cents in any one transaction. Also approved in this act was a two-cent piece of the same composition, with both its weight and legal tender limit double that of the cent.

The first bronze cents used the same hubs as the copper-nickel issue, which had also been coined during 1864. Both hubs were revised late in the year, Liberty's rounded bust of 1860-64 being replaced with one that tapered to a point. James B. Longacre's initial "L" was added to her hair ribbon, though it's barely visible. The central letters in ONE CENT were reduced in depth to provide better striking of the obverse portrait.

The copper-nickel cents coined early in 1864 saw little circulation until after the war. Examples are moderately scarce across all grades, but they're not truly rare. Their coinage seems hurried, with worn dies and poor strikes being common. The bronze cents without letter "L" were produced in large numbers. While many show similar die erosion and other signs of poor quality, enough have survived unworn that finding a choice specimen is not at all difficult or expensive.

1864 Bronze Cent
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1864 L Bronze Cent
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1864 L Bronze Cent Close Up
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It's uncertain how many 1864 L cents were coined, but series expert Rick Snow estimated that 5 million of the total 39 million bronze cents were made with dies of the revised hubs. Popular with collectors, 1864 L cents typically bring three to four times the price of the earlier issue across most grades. They seem to have been made with greater care, and well struck examples are the norm.

As most collectors ordered their proof coins at the beginning of each year, the copper-nickel cents were the ones supplied to these early birds. Well made overall, these cents sometimes provide nice cameo contrast between brilliant fields and frosted devices. Bronze, no L cents are more scarce than most later proofs in the series, but they are collectable. Examples displaying cameo contrast, however, are quite rare. Coming very late in the year, the 1864 L proofs were made in extremely small numbers (estimated at 20 in most references). Die state comparisons with proof cents dated 1869-70 have revealed that most were struck after 1864 to satisfy collector demand. Such practices were commonplace at the US Mint in the 1860s-70s.

To read additional USA Coin Album columns, click here.

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

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