FLYING EAGLE CENT
Cent collecting is enjoyed by perhaps more coin collectors than any other
field of coins other than Morgan silver dollars. Most are easy to find and,
with the exception of some key dates, values are generally modest.
Small Cents begin with the Flying Eagle Cents of 1856 to 1858, a short but
surprisingly challenging series.
Cents are a transition in several respects. Large Cents were still
struck through 1857 and the metal composition of the Flying Eagle Cents is
not the same as what was used on later issues. Even the thickness and
weight of our smaller 1-Cent coin has changed since the first ones
appeared. The Large Cent was
increasingly unpopular by the 1840s and since the denomination was not legal
tender (only silver and gold coins were legal tender in the United
States), many merchants and banks refused to accept the coins. Others
accepted the Large Cents at deep discounts. What was worse, by 1851, it was
costing the Mint $1.06 to strike a Dollar's worth of 1-Cent coins. A
negative seignorage was at hand (seignorage is the profit the Mint makes
between the cost of manufacturing a coin and its face value)!
diameter of the Large Cent was modeled after the British Penny
denomination. As early as 1837, a New York dentist, Dr. Lewis
Feuchtwanger, proposed a
Small Cent of what he called “argentan” or “American silver”
(actually German silver composition). Feuchtwanger Cents are
collectible in their own right, but are generally not included in a collection of
U.S. Small Cents. As the cost of producing Large Cents exceeded
their value, experimental Cent patterns and various proposals for a
practical metal composition for a Small Cent began to be explored. As
Large Cent blanks became not only expensive, but almost unavailable, Mint Director
James R. Snowden decided to strike a Small Cent of 88 percent copper and
12 percent nickel at a weight of 4.67 grams (Large Cents have a weight of
10.89 grams and are composed of pure copper beginning in 1795).
Snowden didn’t choose this mix at random.
He was being lobbied heavily by Joseph Wharton (and his monopoly of nickel mines)
to use an alloy including this Nickel. The flying eagle design appearing on the
reverse of the Gobrecht Silver Dollars of 1836 to 1839 was adopted by
Snowden for the new Small Cent. The wreath on the reverse of the new Small
borrowed from the reverse design on the Gold Dollar and the $3 coin
denominations designed by James B. Longacre. It is interesting to note
that initially, the Secretary of the Treasury (rather than Wharton) had the
decision -making power regarding the coin design and that there was
no Act passed by Congress in 1856 authorizing a Small Cent.
ordered about 1,000 1856 Flying Eagle Cents struck without official
authorization. Therefore, from a legal standpoint, all 1856 Flying Eagle Cents
may be considered to have been illegally
struck and issued (as with the 1804 Silver Dollar and the 1913 Liberty Head
Nickel). However, the Secret Service probably never will, but would have
the legal right to, seize these coins.
It is difficult to determine
how many 1856-dated Flying Eagle Cents were struck. At least 634
were given to politicians and other well connected people. During
1858 and 1859, more were restruck using the original dies. Not all
restrikes can be differentiated from the original strikes. It is known
that collector George W. Rice at one time owned 756 of the 1856 Flying
Eagle Cent. Considering that many of the Rice specimens came from
circulation, there were undoubtedly more struck. Collector John Beck
accumulated 531 coins of the same date.
The 1856 Flying Eagle
Cent is usually divided into three main varieties: 1) the original
pieces struck for Mint and government purposes in 1856 and early 1857, 2) the
first restrikes of 1858 sold to collectors, and 3) the questionable second
restrikes of 1860.
Most collectors will be content with a single
1857 example, however there are several varieties of this date also to
consider. These are the rare “Style of 1856” variety (with a squared O
in OF and other diagnostics), and the so-called regular variety.
varieties also exist. These can be identified through specialized coin
catalogs on the subject. Proofs as well as Uncirculated business
The 1857 issue was struck following the Act of Feb. 21,
1857 authorizing Small Cents. Unlike the 1856 issue, that of 1857 is
officially authorized. The 1857 Flying Eagle Cents were very popular
with the public and saved in large quantities. The coins were so popular,
the Mint set up booths in the Mint yard to sell the coins to the public.
The coin is available in many grades at reasonable prices. Clashed die
specimens may be the result of night watchmen at the Mint illegally
experimenting with coin dies (these same watchmen were responsible for
some 1804 Silver Dollar restrikes).
There are two popular major
varieties of the 1858 Flying Eagle Cent often collected alongside the 1856
and 1857 coins to complete a set. In fact, there are other minor varieties,
but these are for the specialist. The two major varieties, Large
Letters and Small Letters, are reasonably easy to identify. The difference
in the lettering in the AM of AMERICA is obvious. As in 1857, there
are Proof and business strikes of the date to be collected. There is also
an important 1858/7 overdate rarity only discovered in recent years. This
overdate is believed to be a refurbished 1857 die with the 8 added later.
the Large Cent, the Small Cent was not legal tender, so it should have
come as no surprise that it, too, would be rejected by bankers and
No one knows for certain why Snowden quickly changed from
the Flying Eagle to the Indian Head design, but the difficulty of getting
good strikes of the former may have been a factor. Collectors today
will find a typical weakness on the eagle's tail feathers even
on Mint State specimens and regardless of the date. Fully struck tail
feathers are exceptions that often command significant premiums.