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Alloy binds three designs together

There is no doubt that at some point in its history the United States was going to have to change from a large cent to something smaller.

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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When you read of copper-nickel nowadays, it usually refers the composition of current dimes, quarters and half dollars even if it is not followed by the word “clad.” It could also be the composition of the nickel coin, which is made of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel.

When it comes to the coinage of the 19th century, copper-nickel might refer to the five-cent coin first introduced in 1866 or the nickel three-cent piece introduced the year before in 1865.

Another denomination of the 19th century that used a copper-nickel alloy was the cent. More specifically they were the transition cents of the United States. While short-lived there is no way to doubt the fact that the of 1857-1864 played a vital role in the evolution of the cent. That makes them extremely historical, but ironically a somewhat overlooked group as most tend to think of the cents of the United States being large cents until 1857 and every cent afterwards being smaller but basically the same.


There is no doubt that at some point in its history the United States was going to have to change from a large cent to something smaller. There were a couple problems with the large cent. The first was logical in that’s its size made it inconvenient. During the course of a day of shopping you might accumulate a number of large cents and with their large size there had been some grumbling by the 1850s about coming up with something smaller and easier to use.

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There was another factor that was even more important and that was the price of copper. The idea of the original large cent was to have a coin roughly the equivalent of its face value in terms of its metal value. By 1849 the cost of the copper was already a chronic problem.

While the rising copper cost was a concern an equally important concern was what could be done to make the cent both smaller and equally valuable in terms of its metal content. By mid 1853 James Booth, a melter and refiner at the Philadelphia Mint who had been attempting to come up with a solution to the problem, was convinced that German silver was the answer. Mint officials, meanwhile had other ideas. Booth was ordered to go ahead with patterns as they had done with ring cents in 1850-1851. The ideas were coming fast and furious with some suggesting dropping zinc from German silver, which would basically result in a copper-nickel alloy, while others were advocating bronze. Patterns were produced using a flying eagle design but none was approved as the internal debate continued.

Finally in 1856 Booth came up with an idea that was a small, but thick copper-nickel cent comprised of a 12 percent nickel and 88 percent copper alloy. Being small and thick, (thicker than the current cent) they would not be confused with silver coins and although their metal value was not close to their face value it was Booth’s idea that in reality it was the backing of the government and not the value of the metal that caused people to accept and use the coins. Mint Director James Ross Snowden was willing to go along and he endorsed the idea in a letter to Treasury Secretary James Guthrie who promptly took the idea to President Franklin Pierce.

Chief Engraver James B. Longacre was brought into the act to create patterns involving a flying eagle similar to the one used on Gobrecht dollars in the late 1830s and a reverse that was really the wreath used on $3 gold pieces. Finally in November of 1856 the dies were ready and patterns were struck.

The patterns struck became one of the most interesting and certainly most popular patterns in the history of the United States. We cannot be sure of the initial mintage although at minimum it was several hundred and perhaps as high as 1,000, but the 1856 Flying Eagle cent would see additional production as well. Initially, however, the patterns were primarily for a show and tell of sorts where almost anyone and everyone who would have a role in approving the idea and helping to convince the public to support the change was given a pattern to show what the new cents would be like if approved.

The new cents were taken to the Congress, which would approve the changeover from large cent to the Flying Eagle cent on Feb. 21, 1857. Release of the new cents was pushed back until May 25 to allow the Mint time to produce enough to meet the anticipated demand. On that first day of availability, long lines formed as under the new law the public could exchange old and unpopular Spanish silver pieces for the new coins as well as old coppers, causing two lines to form – one for those exchanging Spanish silver and another for those exchanging old copper issues.

The release of the first 1857 Flying Eagle cents was to prove important for a variety of reasons at the time. The first was simply the fact that at least some people wanted them. This had been a major concern of officials fearing that without a sufficient metal value the new coins might be shunned. The reception the first day alone suggested that there was heavy demand and production was ordered to continue at the unheard of rate of 100,000 pieces a day.

The appearance of the 1857 Flying Eagle cent would also result in a major surge in public interest in coin collecting. Suddenly many who had never given coin collecting a second thought were interested in acquiring an example of every possible date of the disappearing large cents. That interest is still felt today as it gives us a better supply of many large cent dates than would otherwise be the case, but at the time it made a major difference in the popularity of coin collecting.

The popularity of large cents certainly increased but they were not alone as the collectors of the day discovered that in addition to the just released 1857 Flying Eagle cents there were also a few that carried an 1856 date. It was a natural outcome that some would be seen as with hundreds having been passed out to various people some were certain to surface outside the halls of Congress.

The collectors of the day upon discovering that 1856 Flying Eagle cents existed went to the Mint to see if they could acquire examples for their collections as well. We cannot be sure of the thought process, but for whatever reason the Mint was willing to make more. Some were proofs and some were business strikes. It is believed that the Mint director used some of the additional 1856 Flying Eagle cents to make trades to improve the Mint collection, but realistically it was a situation that is difficult to fully document today.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cent was immediately seen by the collectors of the day as a coin rather than a pattern – and an important coin at that. Technically it is a pattern, but it still is priced as though it is a coin and part of a regular collection. There have been assorted of hoards that have come to market over the years suggesting the extent of the popularity of the 1856 at its time of issue and making it one of the most hoarded dates in history.

There have been a couple particularly famous hoards of the 1856, including the one formed by George W. Rice of Detroit in the late 1890s and early 1900s. That hoard totaled 756 pieces with many being sold in 1911. Some of that number found their way to Pittsburgh and the 531-piece hoard of John A. Beck who also liked $50 gold “slugs.” There were other smaller hoards as well. The 1856 Flying Eagle cent has historically had a popularity far above any pattern and in fact far above almost all coins as was seen even at the time as the going price for an 1856 a couple years after being released was reported to be one dollar, which was a good price for a cent that was just a couple of years old.

The mintages of the Flying Eagle cent were large with the 1857 total being 17,450,000 while the 1858 total of 24,600,000 was divided between small and large letter varieties with the “A” and “M” in “AMERICA” being connected on the large letter variety and separated on the small.

With the large mintages, however, all three are basically at the same prices of roughly $28 in G-4. In MS-60 and MS-65 the large letter 1858 is slightly more costly at $340 in MS-60 as opposed to $320 for the others and $3,850 in MS-65 as opposed to $3,500 and $3,650 for the others. It’s an interesting situation as realistically the totals at the Professional Coin Grading Service suggest that the 1858 small letters is seen less often. At PCGS the large letter variety has been graded 137 times in MS-65 while the small has been seen just 39 times in the same grade.

The story is the same at the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. as the large letters has been graded 97 times in MS-65 and the small letters just 47. In both cases there have been reports of small hoards being discovered and sold over the years but the emphasis is on “small” as the totals were at the most a couple hundred pieces.

There was also an overdate in the form of the 1858/7, which currently lists at $65 in G-4. In MS-60 the 1858/7 is at $3,300, but in MS-65 it lists for $60,000. In fact, its numbers seem to justify the prices as PCGS has seen just four examples in MS-65 and about 55 total in all Mint State grades combined.

The large mintages proved to be too large. In fact, the fears of officials that the public might reject the new cents were not without some foundation. There were people using the new Flying Eagle cents to pay every bill while refusing to accept them in change. It caused serious problems for merchants who were taking a loss having to sell off their excess supply of Flying Eagle cents to brokers at a discount. Had the situation spread the future of the whole idea of coins worth significantly less than their face value in their metallic content might have been in some doubt.

It was at that time that officials opted for a design change just a couple years into the Flying Eagle design. The choice was a James B. Longacre Indian Head obverse with a laurel wreath reverse. In 1860 after just a year of production the reverse would be changed to an oak wreath with a shield at the top making the 1859 a one-year type coin.

The 1859 mintage had been 36,400,000, which was even larger than the prior Flying Eagle mintages and it was more than enough to leave us with some supplies today and that is especially important as being a one-year type coin the 1859 Indian Head cent could potentially have its priced increased dramatically by type demand. As it stands today in circulated grades, the 1859 is relatively available at $13 in G-4. With the type demand, however, it is more expensive than might normally be expected at $230 in MS-60 and $3,650 in MS-65. There are also proofs with the current listing being $5,200. In fact, the proof price is far below the Flying Eagle prices for proofs, which tend to be about $25,000 and up. The difference is in the fact that around 1859 the Mint started to become more serious about proofs perhaps in part because of the interest expressed in the 1856. The proof mintages of the Flying Eagle cents other than the 1856 were believed to be below 500, but the 1859 total is generally placed at 800 and the numbers rose in the following years as there was increasing demand from collectors each year.

In the case of the 1859 in Mint State we see totals that reflect some saving by collectors of the day. At PCGS they report roughly 1,000 examples in all Mint State grades combined. In MS-65 the total stands at 106 with 12 in MS-66. Normally speaking those totals would be high enough to produce lower prices, but with the type demand, which is usually for top quality examples, the 1859 remains a popular date and one that usually has rising prices.

The real strength of the type demand can be seen by comparing prices for the 1859 especially in MS-65 to the prices of the next few dates and the numbers reported at the grading services. What will be found is the 1859 is seen more often than other less expensive dates making the only way to explain the higher prices of the 1859 unusual demand and that is a result of demand from type collectors. Moreover, it would seem likely in the years ahead that the type demand will, if anything, increase keeping the 1859 at a premium price.

The 1860 would be the first Indian Head cent with the changed reverse. With a mintage of 20,566,000 pieces, the 1860 was high mintage, but not as high as the 1859. That does not however result in higher prices as the 1860 is $11 in G-4, $190 in MS-60, $965 in MS-65 and $3,600 in Proof-65. In fact, its MS-65 total is just slightly higher than the 1859 with PCGS reporting 139 examples as opposed to 106 for the 1859.

Of all the copper-nickel cents, the date generally seen as the key is the 1861 in large part because of its low mintage of 10,100,000. The reason for the lower mintage is uncertain but the fact remains that in most grades the 1861 is tougher as is seen with a price of $20 in G-4. In Mint State the premiums vanish as it is less than the 1860 in MS-60 at a current listing of $180 while the MS-65 price of $975 is identical to most other dates. In fact so are the totals seen at PCGS with the 1861 having been seen 132 times in MS-65, which is more than the 1863 or 1864, but less than the 1860 or 1862. In Proof-65 the 1861 has a long-standing reputation for being tough and that is seen in a price of $7,250 today, a price well above the other dates of the period. Its PCGS totals are lower with just 26 examples seen in Proof-65 or better.

It must be remembered that the Civil War broke out in 1861 and that would produce hoarding. The hoarding of gold and silver coins was expected, but copper-nickel cents also were hoarded. The hoards were not numismatic hoards but as it worked out at least a few examples of some copper-nickel dates were later discovered from hoards that had never circulated.

In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards Q. David Bowers described a couple of the more important ones. In the case of the 1861 the information in the Bowers book was supplied by John Dannreuther with the hoard being put at only 15-30 pieces, but the outstanding part was the coins were in extremely high grades, including an MS-68 – the only copper-nickel cent to ever receive such a high grade.

The 1862 hoard reported is much larger. The hoard appears in a Thomas L. Elder auction in 1918 of the Robert Hewitt and B.C. Bartlett collection. There were a number of lots of 1862 cents all described in various degrees of uncirculated. We cannot be sure of the numbers as some lots were mixed, but Bowers concludes, “It is probable that the Elder hoard consisted of about 1,000 specimens of this date (1862).”

The existence of the Elder hoard and perhaps others that are not known to history are probably at least part of the reason that the 1862 and 1863 are relatively available and at similar prices. The 1862 is $11 in G-4 and the 1863 is $7.50. In MS-60 are $80 for the 1862 and $75 for the 1863 while both are at $1,050 in MS-65. At least based on the PCGS totals the 1863 for the same price as the 1862 is the better deal in MS-65 and up but it is the more available of the two in lower Mint State grades.

The 1864 would seem to be a slightly overlooked date. It was in 1864 when the copper-nickel cent was being eliminated. The hoarding of copper-nickel cents had caused a major problem and the goal was to find a cent alloy that would not be hoarded by the fearful public. The answer was bronze, but before the new bronze Indian Head cents were produced there was a mintage of 13,740,000 copper-nickel Indian Head cents. That total was only slightly higher than the 1861, which puts the 1864 at $16.50 in G-4. In Mint State the 1864 is better than the 1860 and 1861 at $220. In MS-65 the 1864 lists for $1,350 and that is the top price for the dates from 1860-1864 and that price is supported by the fact that PCGS reports only 73 coins in MS-65 or better.

The change to a bronze composition in 1864 would mark the end for the thicker copper-nickel cents. They had played a valuable but largely unrecognized role as the first small cent of the United States. As it turned out, despite the fact that they were not worth close to their face value in copper-nickel, it was still hoarding for metal value that caused them to be essentially transitional cents. What might have happened had there been no Civil War we can only guess.

Today all are available, although if you include the 1856, which is now at $6,250 just in G-4, it can be a problem but the others are readily available in most grades. It makes for an interesting collection of an interesting period as it must be remembered that the copper-nickel cents were from a fascinating period and in their history they reflect the fears of the public at the time of the Civil War. That makes them all the more interesting and historic as a small but great collection.

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