Throughout the course of history of circulating coinage in the United States, few have had a quicker demise than that of the Flying Eagle Cent. The coin, fraught with die issues, lasted only two years. Those 1857 and 1858 coins, while short lived, from a numismatic perspective, are important. The importance is not just the limited production and short life. This coin, arguably, turned many onto the idea of coin collecting in the late 19th century. While the full measure of that is not really know, without the Flying Eagle Cent, our hobby may look significantly different than it does today.
To understand the importance of the Flying Eagle Cent, one has to look at the history of the Cent throughout the history of the United States. That background will help set the scene for the coin and its acceptance as a circulating – and legal tender – issue.
A Brief History of The United States Cent
The seeming annual debate for the Department of Treasury and United States Mint is if the now Lincoln Cent should continue to be struck. It is the only coin circulating that has a higher cost than its face value. But that debate is not new. In fact, it has been going on almost since the inception of the Mint and circulating coinage in the country. For the record, the cent was the first official coin to be struck by the United States Mint. It was struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1793 and was a large cent of 100% pure copper. These cents were about the size of a Kennedy Half Dollar to help paint a picture of what is meant by “large cent”
From 1793 to 1815, the cent continued to be struck each year. In 1815, due to a shortage of copper, the coin was not struck. But there were bigger problems for the copper coin. The main problem was that the coin was not considered legal tender. That’s right: The Mint was producing a coin that one could not use to basically transact… anything! The government itself did not accept them for the payment of taxes nor would they allow them to be redeemed. The only legal tender at the times were gold and silver coins. Indeed, banks and merchants were under no obligation to accept the copper coins.
That, of course, created a problem which is easy to see but it created another challenge for the fledgling new country: Spanish colonial silver pieces were the most widely used currency in the United States. These worn pieces, because of their silver content, were accepted as legal tender even though they were not struck in the country.
Cent production resumed in 1816 and continued uninterrupted. By the 1840s, the Department of the Treasury had figured out a way to profit (or seignorage) from monetizing copper into cents which, in turn, helped fund the Mint itself. That, however, became challenging in 1849. That year, copper prices rose significantly which effectively eliminated any profits the Mint made from the Cent. It was at this point that the Department of the Treasury and Mint began contemplating an alternative: A smaller Cent. That finally came to be in 1857 with the Flying Eagle Cent but the composition of the Cent – and if there would even be such a small denomination – occupied much of the ten years between 1847 and 1857.
Inception of The Flying Eagle Cent
Somewhat uniquely amongst United States coins, the Flying Eagle Cent had a lot of actions in motion at the beginning of its inception. There was the legislative aspect but there was also the experimentation with alloys in order to find a base metal that was easy to reproduce at a low cost to the Mint.
The legislation to introduce the new Cent was introduced into the United States Senate on March 25, 1856. The legislation had several key components, most of which Mint Director Snowden and Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie advocated to legislators. Under the bill, several actions would occur:
- A new legal tender coin with a value up to ten cents would be introduced
- An exchange would be setup where people could turn in a Spanish silver coin in exchange for 12 1/2 cents. There would be no discounting – sometimes up to 20% – for wear on the silver pieces
- The loss the government would take on the trade values would be recouped by the seignorage on the base metal pieces.
- The new cents would be issue for the old larger cents with an exchange value of the half cent
- The half cent would be discontinued
- The new cent would be 95% copper and weigh at least 6.2 grams (added on April 16, 1856 in the final legislation)
While the legislative work was happening, work on the alloys for the new cent were also underway. Mint Melter and Refiner, James C. Booth, was conducting experiments on alloys to determine what would be appropriate and best for the new cent. Ultimately this led to Director Snowden writing Secretary Guthrie in July 1856 suggesting that an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel would be the best combination and urged Guthrie to suggest amendments to the legislation being considered.
At the same time, the Mint’s Chief Engraver, James Longacre, was instructed to prepare designs for pattern coins that would ultimately make their way onto the new cent. Initially, Longacre worked on a Liberty head design. These were common at the time across coinage in the country and, logically, it was a solid place for him to start. However, at some point, Snowden asked Linacre to produced a flying eagle design which he did promptly. With the designs for the pattern coins completed, the Mint struck 50 Half Cent coins with the design and sent them to Washington. There, they were reviewed by Treasury officials as well as congressmen. In November 1856, Longacre prepared what would ultimately become the final design of the coin in the required size.
In November 1856, the Mint began striking pattern coins using Longacre’s design. The idea behind these strikings were to gain public acceptance and, to that end, hundreds were distributed to various congressmen and other government officials. Two hundred of these pattern coins were know to have been sent to the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures while four were given to President Franklin Pierce for review. No official number of how many pattern coins were struck but it is at least 634 (accounted by the known releases to dignitaries and committees) but the number could easily be in the thousands. At the time, the Mint was making extras of these coins available upon request and it is unknown how many requests were received and fulfilled.
Legislation that authorized the new cent was finally passed on February 18, 1857 and signed into law just a few days later on February 21st. The new cents would be sized at 19mm, the same size as today’s cent and, importantly, the exchange of Spanish silver would be allowed for at least two years. The passing of the legislation created a challenge for the Mint. It called for the new cent to be released in 1857 but the Mint had already started pressing 1857 dated Liberty Head large cents. According to Mint records, 333,456 of the coins were made for circulation. Most of these never actually left the Philadelphia Mint but some did make it out. From a numismatic perspective, the 1857 Liberty Head cent is a key coin as it was never officially supposed to be released.
Quickly, the Mint had to switch gears to begin production of the new smaller cent.
Production began in April 1857 of the smaller Flying Eagle cent with the pieces being stored to assure a sufficient supply. the coins were released for distribution on May 25, 1857.
Flying Eagle Cent Design
Chief Engraver James Longacre’s eagle design for the new Cent was not entirely new. The Obverse of the coin was based upon the Eagle found on the gold Dollar coins designed by Christian Gobrecht. Meanwhile, the wreath on the Reverse is a derivative of Longacre’s own design of the Type II gold dollar of 1854 and three-dollar coin from that year.
Difficulty in Striking of The Flying Eagle Cent
From the start of striking of the new cent, the Mint ran into trouble. The design of the coin was part of the challenge as was the hard copper-nickel alloy. Today, we don’t think much of this alloy because it is so widely used in our modern coinage. But the technology to press coins in 2021 is far superior to that of 1857. Once more, the design itself did not help. The eagle on the Obverse was directly opposite of parts of the reverse design. Efforts to bring out the details of the eagle lead to a significant increase in die breaks. The evidence of this challenge can be found in specimens of the coins which have weak details on the eagle’s head and tail.
Despite these challenges, 17.45 million of the new cent were struck in Philadelphia in 1857. At the time, it was the greatest single coin production figure by the United States Mint.
In 1958, changes were made to the dies in order to help solve some of the die cracking problems. Changes were made to the eagle as well as smaller letters used for the inscriptions. These were not well received by Mint officials, particularly the change to the eagle. Many viewed the newly design eagle as “weak” or “scrawny”. The changes, however, did strike well. In 1858, 24.6 million Flying Eagle cents were produced but the writing was on the wall that this particular design would not last long. By mid-1858, there were already pattern coins being produced as replacement designs.
Release of The Flying Eagle Cent
The new small cent was released to the public on May 25, 1857 at the Philadelphia Mint facility. Anticipating large crowds, the Mint constructed a structure in the courtyard which would have two separate lines for customers. One line would be for the changing of Spanish silver for the new cent while the other would be for those brining old copper cents and half cents. Exchanges and sales began promptly at 9:00 AM that morning and demand was exceptionally high. In all, the Mint had $30,000 in the new cents – three million cents – and nearly all of it was gone in the first day.
While the Mint had financially estimated the cost and recovery of the Spanish silver, it proved that their estimates were woefully short. By September 1857, the volume of Spanish silver coming into the Mint was so high that Mint officials gave up on the idea of being able to pay for it just with the new cent. At that point, Mint Director Snowden authorized payment of the returning silver to be made in gold and silver. Further, in March 1859, Congress authorized the redemption of foreign coins for an additional two years but that was released just over a year later in July 1860. Still, Snowden continued to take in the foreign coinage for another two years without congressional approval.
The public reception of the new small cent was positive. Many became interested in numismatics because of it, especially with rumors of the 1856 coins being released. It also spurred collecting of the older larger cents as they began to disappear from circulation.
Demise of The Flying Eagle Cent
The two largest contributors to the short life of the Flying Eagle Cent was the design itself and the metal alloy used. The difficulty in striking of the coin led to a number of modifications to the dies and designs in an effort to stem the die breaks that were happening with the coins. In 1858, the Mint produced a number of pattern coins that depicted a significantly smaller eagle on the Obverse. These were almost universally rejected by Mint officials and Treasury officials as they felt the eagle was too small or “scrawny”. This led to Mint Director Snowden to direct Longacre to prepare pattern coins for a completely new design for 1859.
After producing between 60 to 100 sets of twelve pattern coins, the design of Liberty wearing a Native American-style headers was adopted. This would become the Indian Head Cent which was released in 1859 and was the Cent design until 1909 with the introduction of the Lincoln Cent.
Collecting The Flying Eagle Cent
Despite its exceptionally short life span, the Flying Eagle Cent produced several varieties of the coin for collectors. Of course, the key coin in the series is the 1856 pattern coin. Technically the coin was never minted or released in 1856. However, an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 of the pattern coins did make their way into circulation. This makes it the rarest and by far most expensive coin in the series with a book value of a specimen graded G-4 costing $7,000.
If you are looking to collect a Flying Eagle Cent for a type collection, the 1857 issue is your best bet. It is reasonably priced – graded F-12 is $50 – and they are plentiful.
The 1858 release had three different varieties that makes collecting that year a bit more tricky. First, there is the Large Letters variety which was the standard release. These are affordable with a F-12 example costing around $50. The more difficult variety is the 8-over-7 with will cost about $185 in F-12. Finally, there is the Small Letters variety which is about $50 in grade F-12.
All this said, the Flying Eagle is a reasonably easy series to complete and with the exception of the 1856 coin, are well under $100 for mid-range examples.
- Guth, Ron; Garrett, Jeff (2005). United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Atlanta, Ga.: Whitman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7948-1782-4.
- Lange, David W. (2006). History of the United States Mint and its Coinage. Atlanta, Ga.: Whitman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7948-1972-9.
- Snow, Richard (2009). A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents. Atlanta, Ga.: Whitman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7948-2831-8.