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Flying Eagle cents enjoy 150 years of popularity

As the Flying Eagle cent is usually collected as part of an Indian Head cent collection, it may well not receive the sort of attention it deserves. That is the problem in the case of any coin that is only produced for a couple years ? we also see that in the case of the 20-cent piece and Susan B. Anthony dollar. Small collections just seem to discourage much study.

In the case of the Flying Eagle cent, however, that would be a mistake.
The history of the Flying Eagle cents really goes all the way back to the first Mint Act on April 2, 1792. Officials were concerned that U.S. coins be seen as at least the equals of the coins of the many other nations that were circulating in America.

There were good reasons for the caution. The Revolutionary period, while a glorious one in terms of historic importance, had also been something of a disaster when it came to public relations between the government and the people, at least where finances were concerned. The Continental Currency issued in the period around the Revolution had been accepted by many, but by the time the conflict was over it was dropping in value to the point where the phrase ?Not worth a Continental? had real meaning. A government cannot last long when the people do not trust its obligations.

That situation was bad enough, but with the coins of other lands being accepted and used in commerce, there was the added factor that comparisons were natural. If silver coins from England or Spain appeared to be better and contained more silver than those of the new United States, the people would naturally question the value of their freedom ? or perhaps more importantly their elected officials. Consequently, there was really no room for second-rate coins of questionable value. The lawmakers understood that fact and made the coins, if anything, slightly too large.

Gre0311-b.jpgThere were slight initial size reductions in the copper issues, which were clearly too large, but after that the United States entered a period when no one wanted to change the amount of copper, silver or gold in any denominations. It became something of a third rail of American politics at the time: no matter what the problem you avoid touching the coins. It was seen as a quick end to a political future and perhaps worse as the people at the time were not adverse to a little entertainment such as running someone out of town on a rail.

A good indication of the situation was seen in the 1820s. The U.S. gold coins were slightly too valuable. There were mintages, yes, but as you?ll find today if you try to buy a gold coin from the 1820s, while the mintages suggest they should be available, they are not avaialable in any numbers. In fact, most are rare. The reason for this is that gold coins were not circulating in the 1820s. Instead, people would sell them to brokers and receive slightly more than their face value and the coin would then be exported. The situation continued year after year for more than a decade before the Congress finally took the required action and lowered the amount of gold in the coinage slightly. The people did not revolt, and finally gold coins were back in circulation.

Gre0311-c.jpgThe situation with silver coins showed the similar caution with which officials approached matters of reducing the amount of silver in coins. The discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio and suddenly the cost of producing silver coins was higher than their face value. Officials should have taken action immediately but instead they authorized a 75 percent silver three-cent piece in 1851, seemingly in the hope that the new issue would keep the situation from becoming a crisis and that things would return to normal without special action. They were not that lucky. In 1853 they had to take the required action to reduce slightly the amount of silver in silver coins.

While noticed, these slight reductions in gold and silver content were really not visible. By the early 1850s the large cent and half cent were also showing indications that there needed to be action. There the solution to the problems would be a lot more obvious. The price of copper was slowly moving to a point where the half cent and large cent could only be produced at a loss. In addition, there were some complaints about the large size of the two. The first reaction of officials at the time was to seek another alloy, allowing them to reduce the size but keep the metal value close to one cent. The problem was that no one could find an alloy that would work.

Gre0311-d.jpgFinally, after an assortment of attempts, a smelter by the name of John Booth came up with an alloy and a theory. Booth suggested an alloy of 12 percent nickel and 88 percent copper, which actually would produce a smaller cent worth only about 90 percent of its face value. The theory that went with the alloy was that it was not the metal value of the coin that caused them to be accepted by the public, but rather the backing of the government. Everyone liked Booth?s theory but no one liked the prospect of being seen as responsible if the public proved Booth wrong ? and turned in anger on whoever approved the new cents with the lower value. It was decided to make up some samples of the new cent and take them on the road to sell the idea to opinion leaders and the Congress in advance.

The first step was to make up some of the new cents. That required than Chief Engraver James B. Longacre come up with a design, which he did using a flying eagle design probably taken from the Gobrecht dollars of the late 1830s. Patterns were struck dated 1856. The initial mintage was perhaps 1,000 pieces although we cannot be sure. What we do know is that the patterns were taken to Congress and other leaders to show them the concept.

The idea worked as on Feb. 21, 1857 the new smaller size cents were authorized.

In a way the whole activity was similar to 1974 when officials took proposed aluminum cents to Congress to seek approval of that idea. The problem in 1974 was that the idea was not approved and the 1974 aluminum cents had to be destroyed. In both cases, however, the samples of the proposed cents had a way of not being returned. In 1974 it mattered to officials, but in 1856 no one seemed to care. There is no record of just how many of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent patterns were not returned, but it must have been a significant number.

Gre0311-e.jpgIn all probability officials probably thought little about those 1856 Flying Eagle cents floating around. They had many other problems with the idea of the new cent. Among the problems was that they would have to make their own planchets as opposed to using ones purchased from firms like Crocker Brothers as had been the case with large cents. It was also decided to build up a stockpile of the new cents before their release, and that set back the introduction date until May 25, 1857.

Having a large inventory of the new cents proved to be a wise idea. The excited Mint director reported of the initial release, ?The demand for them is enormous.? He was correct. The public in many cases was happy to be able to turn in the cumbersome half cents and large cents while also trading in some of the old Spanish silver that was still circulating.

The Philadelphia Bulletin was on the scene and it reported, ?Those who were served rushed int o the streets with their money bags, and many of them were immediately surrounded by an outside crowd, who were willing to buy out in small amounts at an advance of 30 to 100 percent, and some of the outside purchasers even huckstered out the coin again in smaller lots at a still heavier advance.?

Gre0311-f.jpgWith people making money selling the new coins on the spot, there was little time to consider if the coin might later have problems. Additionally, the Flying Eagle cent was helped by the fact that the older coppers and Spanish silver issues were so unpopular. Again The Philadelphia Bulletin reflected the situation, suggesting, ?We doubt much whether, in the history of the Mint, there was ever so great a rush inside the building or so animated a scene outside of it. It was, in effect the funeral of the old coppers and ancient Spanish coins.?

Naturally, the new cents had a very quick impact on coin collecting interest. Some started to seek out the old large cents to assemble collections by date. Others, however, discovered that although the enormous majority of the new Flying Eagle cents carried an 1857 date, there were reports of a few dated 1856. That was unusual, and at the time it was normal upon learning about 1856 dated cents to go to the Mint to see if they could acquire a Flying Eagle cent dated 1856.

While we know the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was technically a pattern, the coin not even authorized until 1857, it appears that to the collectors of the 1850s that mattered little. They wanted an 1856 for their collection. Moreover, the Mint was willing to sell them to the collectors, making additional examples including proofs and business strikes. Just how many were ultimately made and released is uncertain. Estimates range from perhaps 1,500 to 3,500 as a total.

Within a couple years the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was selling for $1, which was a lot of money at the time, especially for a coin only a few years old. Historically it seems that the collectors of the 1850s have really set the pattern. While the 1856 Flying Eagle cent can never be technically more than a pattern, it has always been treated and priced like a coin.

In fact, if you look at important collections and hoards, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is very possibly the most regularly hoarded rare date of the United States. In fairness, there have been larger hoards of things like 1931-S Lincoln cents, but realistically there have been a number of different and important hoards of the 1856 Flying Eagle cents reported and sold over the years. R.R. Leeds of Atlantic City, N.J., had a reported 109 examples when his collection was sold in 1906. When the collection of George Rice of Detroit, Mich., was sold a few years later it totaled 756 examples of the 1856, and some found their way to the John Andrew Beck hoard which was reported to total 531. When you realize that even a G-4 1856 today has a price guide listing of $6,250, such hoards have to be seen as impressive investments at the time.

In all probability those hoarding the 1856 were counting on its potential for price increases, and it has not disappointed in that regard. The 1856 is a date that seems regularly to climb in all grades. Back in 1998 it was listed at $4,000 in G-4 and today it is $6,250. At the same time it was listed at $6,950 in MS-60 and today it is $17,500 while an MS-65 has soared from $21,000 to $100,000. A Proof-65, reflecting that they were produced in greater numbers than the business strikes, currently lists at $28,500. In all cases, however, the sky can be the limit for the right examples as was seen in 2003 when Heritage auctioned an MS-66 1856 Flying Eagle cent, Snow 3, for more than $100,000. That is typical of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, which really has a unique place in U.S. numismatic history. It has been a wildly popular item with collectors basically from the start. As the hoards and surprising prices even today indicate, the 1856 has remained popular for 150 years. Few if any U.S. coins have seen such long-term popularity.

As it would turn out, the Flying Eagle cent would not be in production for long. There are somewhat mixed signals as to why it was replaced in 1859 with an Indian Head design. It may well be that the truth is a mixture of the various factors that potentially played a role.

One of the factors is that, for whatever reason, it seems that the Flying Eagle design was not popular with some government officials at the time. There was no law at the time requiring designs be kept in use for 25 years ? that law was passed in 1890 ? so designs could be changed on an official whim. That might well have been the case in 1858.

If it was an official whim, it may have been helped by the fact that the Flying Eagle cent was experiencing some problems in circulation. Not everyone was delighted with the idea of a small cent. There were some, as officials probably feared, who saw the new coins as debased or worthless. Those people were refusing to accept them in change and paying all their bills using masses of the Flying Eagle cents. Some businesses were simply flooded with the coins and were having to pay brokers to take them. With those complaints coming in, under the circumstances officials probably felt a change in design could not hurt and just might help get the Flying Eagle cent full acceptance. In the end, the Civil War would solve all the problems in terms of the cent as even cents would be hoarded.

With only two years of actual production for circulation, the Flying Eagle cent is definitely a small collection. The 1857 had a mintage of 17,450,000 and that was followed by an 1858 total of  24,600,000 split between small-letter and large-letter varieties. The difference is that the so-called large-letter version has the ?A? and ?M? in AMERICA connected while they are clearly separated in the small-letter variety.

Prices of the 1857 and the two varieties of the 1858 are roughly equal in G-4, right around $26. An MS-60 of the 1857 is $320, the large letters 1858 is $350 and the small letters is $310. In MS-65 the three are again basically equal with listings around $4,000, the small letters 1858 actuall a tad lower at $3,850.

There is also one major error commonly collected. That is the 1858/7, which lists for $65 in G-4, $3,400 in MS-60 and $60,000 in MS-65 where both Numismatic Guaranty Corp. and Professional Coin Grading Service have each seen just four examples.

The Flying Eagle cent, discontinued in 1859, was found in circulation for some time and was hoarded in the Civil War. Although the major hoards involved the 1856, there were some numbers discovered of the 1857 and 1858 in top grades, allowing for reasonable supplies today.

In just a couple years of actual production, the Flying Eagle cent left a mark that remains today. It cent not only replaced the large cent but also proved that the idea advanced by smelter Booth ? that it was the backing of the government and not the metal itself ? would work. This has made possible the coins in your pocket today. When you combine the important changes the Flying Eagle cent produced with the historic importance of the 1856, you have a set that, while small in numbers, is certainly large in its impact.

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