The term red penny may be used to refer to a number of different things, although generally it is just used to speak of a penny that is in mint condition. In some cases it may be used to refer to the so-called Indian Head penny, although the term is considered derogatory, and so is not in common usage. The term may also be a misunderstood reference to the Penny Red, the main postage stamp used in Britain for many years.
The Indian Head penny was printed in the United States from 1859 to 1909 in Philadelphia, and briefly from 1908 to 1909 in San Francisco. It was a one-cent coin, holding the same place as our modern penny, but with a different design. On one side the coin has the Liberty head wearing a Native American headdress, with the word Liberty within the headdress, as it is required to appear on all United States coinage. On the other side are the words One Cent, with the shield of the United States.
The older penny, from about 1859 to 1864, contained 12% nickel in addition to 88% copper. The red penny, produced before the five-cent coin we know today as the nickel, was therefore referred to as the nickel, or simply the nick. After the Civil War, however, and the hoarding of coinage that accompanied that period, this penny was changed to a cheaper metal, with 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc, in the process reducing the weight to about 75% of its previous weight.
The red penny was produced in fairly small quantities, with 1909 in San Francisco having the lowest year, at 309,000 total pennies minted. All told, from 1859 to 1909, about 1.85 billion Indian Head pennies were minted. Certain years, however, are still worth quite a bit, because most have been lost to history, especially of the older mints. For example, the 1864 red penny, the first to use tin and zinc, is worth between $1,000 and $3,000 US Dollars (USD). The 1877 red penny, on the other hand, the rarest of the mintages, may sell for more than $30,000 USD at the upper end. The 1909 penny from the Philadelphia mint, at the other end of the spectrum, sells for between $100 and $300 USD.
When many people refer to a red penny, of course, they aren’t talking about an Indian Head penny at all. Instead, they’re referring to a color distinction which indicates a pristine condition. Although these pennies aren’t actually red, they have a much more vibrant color, and red is used to describe it. As pennies are handled from month to month, they dull and become the more familiar brown tone. When someone talks about a red penny in a collection sense, they are simply saying that the penny hasn’t been handled excessively, and so is still untarnished.
In some cases people may also be referring to the Penny Red, a stamp used in Britain. It was first issued in 1841, and was the primary type of stamp used in Britain until it was discontinued in 1879. The Penny Red replaced the earlier Penny Black, and was so named because the main color of the stamp was red, as opposed to the earlier black background.