1939 Wheat Penny: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide
The 1906 Indian Head penny was issued during the last half decade of the coin design’s run in circulation, and the 1906 edition marked the highest mintage total to date in the history of the United States’ one-cent coin – with over 96 million minted.
While that number would be eclipsed the next year with the penny in high demand, this still marked the beginning of what would prove to be a short apex for the Indian Head penny.
The Indian Head penny’s inception came after a disastrous one-year mintage of the Flying Eagle cent in 1857.
The cent prior was as big as a half dollar, necessitating a change when the discovery of gold in California led to rampant inflation and a rise in the price of copper.
The Flying Eagle’s .880 copper, .120 nickel composition and thirty percent drop in diameter was primed to be a cost saver, but the design itself caused major production difficulties and prompted Mint Director James Ross Snowden to find an alternative.
Mint Engraver James B. Longacre, who had been commissioned to create the Flying Eagle design, bounced several ideas off of Snowden for the obverse of the coin.
Three of those ideas (a redo of the Flying Eagle, a scrawnier eagle design, and the eventual Indian Head) were test minted in multiple (60-100) sets of twelve.
In the end, the Indian Head won out – likely due to its low relief and the fact that it would be much easier to strike than the other two designs.
The coin would maintain its .880 copper/.120 nickel composition until 1864.
The United States Mint was running out of nickel supply at that time and demand for cents was at an all-time high, and the coin’s composition changed to its final .950 copper/.050 tin and zinc state which lasted through the end of the coin’s circulation in 1909.
It was in 1909 that the Indian Head cent was officially replaced in circulation by the Lincoln cent – a decision made to fall directly in line with the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
The 1906 Indian Head penny was minted a year after sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was hired by the Mint to design its replacement.
Production of the Indian Head spiked a year later in 1907 (over 108 million), before tapering off considerably in the final two years of the coin’s run.
Total Produced: 96,022,255
Weight: 3.11 g
Diameter: 19.05 mm
Edge Type: Plain
Composition: 0.950 copper, 0.050 tin and zinc
Designer: James Barton Longacre
Obverse Features: According to legend surrounding the design of the coin, the facial features of the goddess Liberty (who dons a traditionally masculine Native American headdress) were sculpted by Longacre in accordance with the facial features of his daughter, Sarah.
Regardless of if that’s true or not, there remains a ton of historical and numismatic conjecture about the design considering it’s essentially a Caucasian woman who dons the headdress of a Native American man.
Interestingly enough, variations of this same juxtaposition would be used by other sculptors such as the aforementioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens and James Earle Fraser for future United States coins.
The phrase “LIBERTY” can be found on the ribbon which separates Liberty’s hair from the bulk of the Native American headdress.
To the left of Liberty’s head (which faces left) lies the phrase “UNITED STATES” in a rainbow parallel to her face, while a mirrored “OF AMERICA” lies behind Liberty’s headdress.
Completing a circle of phrasing is the mintage date directly underneath Liberty’s neck.
Denticles (a small, tooth-like border design which features prominently used in earlier United States coin designs) circle the obverse in the space between the rim and the aforementioned phrasing.
Reverse Features: The original 1859-minted version of the reverse bore a laurel wreath and had a much more sparse overall density of design.
This was changed the next year to its eventually settled design of an oak wreath topped by a narrow shield bearing stripes of the American flag.
Striking issues weren’t known to exist for the initial pattern, but striking issues for details on the obverse gave Mint Director James Ross Snowden an opening to change the design again.
The new wreath circles between the denticles on the edge of the coin and around the phrase “ONE CENT,” prominently centered in bold lettering.
A bundle of ribbon with three arrows protruding sits underneath the phrasing, signifying a celebration of military strength.
The pattern of the oak wreath is much more circular than the jagged edges of the previous laurel wreath, giving it less of a stark feel and more of a pastoral splendor.
Errors and Variations
Because of the exceptionally large mintage figures for the 1906 Indian Head penny, there are multiple noted examples of die errors which have popped up in auctions throughout the years.
However, the majority of collector’s gems when it comes to Indian Head penny errors and variations come from its 19th Century run.
Doubled die errors on phrasing and dates for Indian Head pennies from that time period are sought after by collectors who pay premium to get those oddities in their collection.
The real star, though, is a variation from 1864 which has a small “L” behind Liberty’s neck where her headband meets her curls of hair.
This rarity sells for almost four times what a normal 1864 Indian Head Penny does.
As for the 1906 Indian Head penny, the proof is in the proofs.
Only 1,725 proofs were minted, making them a key collector’s item which has sold for as much as $465 at auction.
Grading and Condition Issues
The key to grading a 1906 Indian Head penny lies in the condition of Liberty’s visage on the obverse.
The more detail and line work you can see in her hair and the feathers of her headdress, the more likely that a circulated version of the coin has a grade approaching Extremely Fine (EF-40) – especially if the phrase “LIBERTY” remains legible and unmarred on the separating ribbon between her hair and the headdress.
Uncirculated versions of the coin will still retain some to most of the mint luster, with fewer handling marks and nicks/scratches leading to a sharp potential value spike.
All phrasing on these coins should maintain their original depth and clarity, as should the central images on both sides of the coin.
As stated before, few proof coins were struck, so there aren’t many on the market.
Those represent the top of the grading and pricing spectrum if handled with care.
The value spike between a Very Fine and Extremely Fine circulated 1920 wheat penny is over four times, as the coin is nearly 100 years old and most coins circulated for that long show significant signs of wear.
Finding a near-mint Uncirculated or Choice Uncirculated coin isn’t out of the question, but they still will set you back $15-30 for a non-error.
Errors, as always, have extremely variance to their potential collector’s value.
Good (G-4): $2.11
Very Good (VG-8): $3.06
Fine (F-12): $4.76
Very Fine (VF-20): $6.16
Extremely Fine (EF-40): $10.00
About Uncirculated (AU-50): $21.00
Uncirculated (MS-60): $39.00
Choice Uncirculated (MS-65): $58.00
Proof (PF-63): $148.00