Rare Money Blog

stacks bowers galleries presents remembering james b longacre

Remembering James B Longacre

By Q. David Bowers, Co-Founder

Author: Q. David Bowers / Thursday, February 18, 2021 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers

Today James Barton Longacre (October 11, 1794 – January 1, 1869) stands as one of the best remembered nineteenth century engravers at the Philadelphia Mint.  His most famous signature is the tiny letter L on the ribbon of the Indian Head cent. A bronze 1864 cent with an L is a key issue, and one lacking this letter is common.

In the early years of his career Longacre was employed as an engraver of bank note plates in Philadelphia by Murray, Draper, Fairman & Company (who earlier had Christian Gobrecht on the staff). His magnum opus was engraving many of the plates for the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans published in Philadelphia in 1839. Today it is an interesting exercise to collect images of the many bank notes he engraved, many of which are available on the internet. The notes themselves can be inexpensive, and the main challenge—an interesting pursuit—is tracking them down. No complete catalog of these has ever been compiled. As a side note, in a caper in 1874 it was published that Longacre had been secretly employed by the Confederate States of America in 1861 to create the dies for a one-cent piece. Such pieces began to appear on the market, including “originals” in copper-nickel and restrikes in copper, silver, and gold. These in fact were modern fantasies. Debunked, they no longer have the numismatic status that they enjoyed decades ago.

The Indian Head cent featuring Longacre’s famous design was first made in pattern form in 1858, then in circulation in 1859. These had an olive or laurel (the Mint used both terms) wreath on the reverse. In addition, about 1,500 pieces were struck with the Shield reverse but not released into circulation. These are sometimes called patterns, but it is more accurate to call them circulation issues that never reached the channels of commerce. Examples seen today are typically well-struck and very lustrous. The eighteenth edition of the Standard Catalogue of United States Coins listed these among regular issues, an idea that was never picked up by the Guide Book of United States Coins.

Among my fond memories of when I was a young teenager fresh to the world of coin collecting was a visit to the owner of the Martz bus line in northeastern Pennsylvania. For many years one of the drivers had kept Indian Head cents that were paid as fares, and I was allowed to look through a cigar box filled with them. Being of a curious turn of mind then (as now) I wondered how rare the 1864 bronze cents with L on the headdress ribbon were in comparison to those lacking this letter. The ratio was about one to three.