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First small cent an affordable key type coin

It’s not often that we find a coin that is not very expensive yet is historically significant as well as a key type coin. The 1857 Flying Eagle cent would have to qualify on all counts. At $27.50 in G-4, $320 in MS-60 and $3,500 in MS-65, it is not all that expensive for a date of the period except in proof where it is $29,000, but even that is in line for Flying Eagle cents.

For the prices, the 1857 is not really an investment coin, which will go to significantly higher prices. It’s actually better than that since it’s a timeless historical coin that played a very important role in U.S. numismatic history.

In the early 1850s officials were trying to figure out what to do about the large cent. They had basically already decided the days of the half cent were numbered, but the large cent had to be replaced and that was a tougher nut to crack.

There were complaints that the large cent was too large, but realistically that was a side issue. The real problem was the cost of copper, which was reaching a point where it would not be long before the large cent would be produced at a loss. That would be a disaster since, for much of its early history, the Mint made virtually no money producing gold and silver. The small charge barely covered the cost of turning the silver or gold into coins. It was the copper large and half cents that made most of the money. It was simply not possible to start losing money on every one of the millions of cents produced each year.

The problem was that a different composition might well not be accepted. Americans were used to coins that had a metallic content close in price to the coin’s face value. One experiment after another proved to be unsatisfactory.

Finally one day a Mint employee named Booth changed everyone’s thinking by coming up with an alloy of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel. He suggested that it was not the metal value that caused coins to be accepted but rather the backing of the government.

That idea was music to the ears of officials trying to find a way to make smaller cents. However, it was also easy for Booth to say – enraged citizens were not likely to try to lynch him over debased cents. A little caution was in order. A group of 1856 patterns were produced to be shown to lawmakers and opinion leaders in attempt to get everyone on board before risking life and limb with a cent not worth as much as a large copper cent.

People were allowed to exchange unpopular foreign silver and old copper issues for the new Flying Eagle cent. The first day the 1857 Flying Eagle cent was offered it was popular beyond everyone’s expectations. There were long lines to obtain them and reports of examples being sold for well over their face value in the street.

Some of the 17,450,000 mintage were saved. Over the years Flying Eagle cent hoards containing the 1857 were discovered. Either way it made for good supplies today of the first small-size cent.

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