What Is a Red Penny?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
The US mint is located in Philadelphia produces coins exclusively.
The US mint is located in Philadelphia produces coins exclusively.

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.

The Highest Valued Pennies

Pennies have been minted in America since its inception with coins dating all the way back to the 1700s. Collectors have been paying attention to the one-cent piece ever since, and in today's coin collecting circles, certain pennies are being hunted for their rarity. People aren't aware that highly valuable pennies are still out there in wide circulation. A penny that sold at auction for over two million dollars in 2015 proved to the world that these ultra-rare coins are definitely worth looking for.

While the Indian Head pennies are known to be a rare variety to look for, they were replaced in 1909 by Lincoln pennies. Here are some Lincoln pennies that hold an elite status among collectors:

  • 1914 S Lincoln - $105,000
  • 1944 D Lincoln on Steel Planchet - $115,000
  • 1943 Lincoln on Bronze - $164,000
  • 1909 VDB Proof Lincoln - $117,000

These pennies have exceptionally high values to serious collectors. The list of different types of pennies is pretty large, with each penny having a different story behind why it is such a rare and limited treasure to find.

Discovering How Much Is a Red Penny Worth

The value of a penny is one cent. Actually, pristine "red pennies" can be worth quite a bit more than their face value and for many reasons. Red pennies worth over $200,000 are common, but should still raise eyebrows. Collectors look for limited mint runs, coins that had design flaws for a limited time, or proofs that somehow made their way into circulation. Since the internet came along, coin collectors have bundled their knowledge on message boards and forums online, creating a repository of valuable information about nearly every coin. Finding information about what coins to look for has never been easier.

Whether the penny to look for is an Indian Head, a Lincoln, or an American Eagle, the point is to find rare coins in good condition. A red penny is certainly a nice thing to have in the world of valuable coins, but it isn't the only game in town when it comes to rare assets.

Coin Condition Makes a lot of Cents

Not surprisingly, the condition of the penny really has an effect on the value. The older the coin and better its condition will increase its value dramatically. Some coins are given to professionals for safe cleaning. Others are kept alone in the condition they were found in hoping the coin won't degrade any further.

Copper coins tend to turn a dull brown color as the copper ages. The best method to clean these older pennies is to use a mild acid like white vinegar and some salt in a solution. Some copper on the pennies may form that green patina we are accustomed to seeing on copper that has been in contact with salt and water. Using coca-cola to dissolve the green away works quite well.

How Cryptocurrency Changes Coin Collecting 

Coin collectors can rest assured that they have a physical coin with an inherent value. Cryptocurrency changes things quite a bit by attempting to apply a value to an invisible coin. Still, some physical Bitcoin chips are available which are physical tokens that look like poker chips, but they don't derive their value from the physical token itself. The token has a code on it which refers to a digital wallet that holds a fraction of a Bitcoin online in the blockchain. This is like a bank account owned by no one which contains an amount of money inside. If a person wanted to spend the money inside that digital wallet, they would need to peel the sticker off the physical token and reveal a QR code that gives the user access to the wallet holding the money. So, don't buy a Bitcoin physical token unless the code has been verified and reveals the digital wallet with the money inside remains untouched. There are free websites that will quickly run the token code and check it for a balance.

NFTs are another fully digital asset that holds a strong value. Non-fungible tokens are usually pieces of digital art that can be traded or sold to people who want to own them. Why would a person buy a digital picture of something when they can just take a screenshot and have that picture for free? Well, taking a screenshot of an NFT doesn't give that person ownership of the NFT. The purpose of the NFT is to have only one of these digital files in existence. The blockchain that the NFT resides in will verify its authenticity.

Discussion Comments

anon938478

The red penny was minted with shell casings from World War II. They do not contain tin. I've seen 1944 and 1945 D and S. They are rare Lincoln cents.

anon31383

'The United States has never had a coin called a "penny".' This is true. They were called mills and they where plastic; red and green in color.

anon31240

Coins aren't "printed" they are "minted".

congaman59

The United States has never had a coin called a "penny". We have a 1 cent piece. Look on your so called penny, do you see the word "penny" no you don't. Look on the nickel, that's right it says nickel. The same with the quarter. It's a one cent piece! Brittan used to have a penny, but not anymore.

wendykase

When I was growing up, in the 1950's, I remember we had red plastic pennies that were, I think, actually, fractions of pennies. Do you know anything about these? I have actually been trying to find some on e-bay, but to no avail. I remember them well. Again, I think they represented fractions of pennies. WK

Flywheel1

"... the so-called Indian Head penny, although the term is considered derogatory"

Who considers it derogatory?

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    • The US mint is located in Philadelphia produces coins exclusively.
      By: SeanPavonePhoto
      The US mint is located in Philadelphia produces coins exclusively.