Obverse and reverse face of the 1909 P Indian Head Cent in Circulated Condition, designed by James B. Longacre.1909 P Indian Head Cent in Circulated Condition, designed by James B. Longacre.

In 1806, twelve-year-old James Barton Longacre left the family farm in Delaware County, Pennsylvania to escape from a stepmother he couldn’t tolerate. Arriving in Philadelphia, he apprenticed for a bookseller who appreciated his artistic skills and took young James in as a member of his family. This was just the beginning of his artistic career.

Establishing an Engraver’s Reputation

To better employ his artistic talent, Longacre became an apprentice engraver at a Philadelphia printer that produced banknotes as one of its products. Before mechanical and photographic methods of reproducing artwork evolved, designs and illustrations were hand engraved in metal or other materials to make dies for printing. It was meticulous work, and top-quality engravers were highly sought. In 1819, his reputation as an engraver established, Longacre set out on his own, producing engravings for books as well as banknotes and other printed material.

Promotion to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver

His portraits of distinguished Americans for the National Portrait Gallery caught the eye of one of the subjects, Senator John C. Calhoun, who successfully promoted Longacre to succeed Christian Gobrecht as Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint upon Gobrecht’s death in 1844. Petty squabbles among artists and bureaucrats are not uncommon, and the mint’s Chief Coiner, Franklin Peale, and his boss, Mint Director Robert Patterson, regularly had disputes with Longacre, much of it based on his lack of experience in designing for stuck pieces such as coins and medals. But Patterson left the mint in 1851 due to ill health and Peale was fired by President Franklin Pearcein 1854 under a cloud of suspicion (Peale ran a private business using mint facilities, and both were suspected of skimming gold from the mint’s inventory), leaving Longacre to ultimately work in peace. 

Coin Designs Take Center Stage

Longacre’s talent was first revealed in the 1849 Liberty Head Gold Dollar and $20 Gold Coronet Head Double Eagle coins. The Liberty Head Dollar was replaced in 1854 by two of Longacre’s Indian Princess designs (known as “Small” and “Large” due to a change in the size of the princess’ portrait) until the coin was eliminated in 1889. The Gold Coronet Double Eagle remained in circulation until 1907, when it was replaced by Saint-Gaudens’ iconic Liberty $20 Gold Double Eagle.

The 1859 Indian Head Penny Design

Longacre went on to design several other U.S. coins including a $3 gold piece, 2- and 3-cent coins, and the first nickel 5-cent coin. But he is best known for his design of the 1859 Indian Head Penny. In spite of billions of coins produced in its fifty-year run, it is one of the most sought-after by collectors, with uncirculated samples often selling for hundreds of dollars and top grades of rare years commanding $2,500 or more.

Underappreciated but Not Under-Recognized

Many consider Longacre to be the most underappreciated U.S. coin designer. While many coins would be known by their designers’ names—Barber, Morgan, and Saint-Gaudens, for example—Longacre’s coins are described by their designs. But Longacre was foremost an artist, so maybe he wouldn’t object.

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