Due to increases in the cost of copper in the 1850s, the US Mint reduced the size of its one-cent coin. The Flying Eagle cent, officially introduced in 1857, was the first “small cent.” It replaced the original “large cent,” which was nearly the size of a contemporary half dollar. However, the design of the Flying Eagle cent did not strike well in the hard 88% copper, 12% nickel alloy. Mint Director James Ross Snowden ordered a new design, which became the Indian Head cent in 1859.

The Mint’s Chief Engraver, James B. Longacre, was the designer of both the Flying Eagle cent and the Indian Head cent. His obverse design features the goddess Liberty wearing an Indian headdress. Even at this time, Mint officials were aware of the oddness of placing a Native American warrior’s headdress on a Caucasian woman – Snowden called this an “absurd incongruity” in a letter to the Treasury Secretary. Longacre had used a similar motif in the 1854 three dollar gold coin. The design stuck, and nearly a half-century later Augustus Saint-Gaudens used a similar design for the $10 “Indian Head” gold piece. The initial reverse design featured a laurel wreath, but this design was replaced the following year with an oak wreath and shield.

Both the Flying Eagle cents and Indian Head cents were issued in exchange for old, worn Spanish silver coins, which were legal tender until 1857 and still circulated widely. So much Spanish silver was turned in that a glut of the new pennies quickly developed. However, this rapidly turned into a shortage as even base metal coins were hoarded during the economic disarray of the Civil War.

Owing to the hoarding situation and rising commodity prices during the war, the composition of the Indian Head cent was changed in 1864. From this time forward, the Indian Head cent was bronze (95% copper, with the balance a mixture of tin and zinc). Even though the copper content increased, the Mint achieved savings by decreasing the thickness (and thus the weight) of the coin. With the exception of a few years during World War II, the penny would retain these thinner dimensions until 1982. Joseph Wharton, the Philadelphia industrialist and founder of the Wharton School of Business, had previously put pressure on the government to incorporate nickel into the Flying Eagle cent. Wharton owned a large nickel mine in Pennsylvania and had a near monopoly on that metal, so he strongly opposed the removal of nickel from the cent. He was somewhat placated by the introduction of a 25% nickel five-cent piece in 1866, which came to be popularly known as the “nickel.”

The subsequent history of the Indian Head cent was also influenced by rising and falling commodity prices. For the most part, they were struck in large quantities, but mintages were lower in certain years when the economy was weak or silver was less expensive. For example, less than a million 1877 cents entered circulation, making it one of the more challenging dates in the series. The introduction of coin-operated machines towards the end of the century fueled demand for pennies, and mintages in the later years were very large (over 100 million in 1907). The design was replaced by the Lincoln cent in 1909.