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First small cent bears Flying Eagle obverse

Before we join in the celebration of the anniversary of the Lincoln cent, let’s  take a look at America’s first small cent, the Flying Eagle.          

Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Lincoln cent. There will be four commemorative designs to celebrate. Before we join in the celebration, let’s visit the opposite of the successful 100-year run of the Lincoln design and take a look at America’s first small cent, the Flying Eagle, which lasted but two years 1857-1858. If we count the patterns of 1856, it lasted three.


Cent coinage began in late February 1793 but even before that there were difficulties to overcome. The original mint law of April 1792 had set the weight at 264 grains (17.11 grams) but the rising price of copper, influenced by the ongoing European wars, forced a change in January 1793 to 208 grains. There were further price increases in the latter part of 1795 and President George Washington lowered the weight again to 168 grains.

As a general rule, especially after 1814, the Mint made a small profit on the copper coinage, helping to offset the other expenses of the institution. In 1837, however, New York dentist Lewis Feuchtwanger produced some one- and three-cent tokens made from German Silver (a varying combination of copper, nickel and zinc) and asked that this alloy be used for U.S. minor coinage. He was ignored, but did leave an idea that several years later would receive careful consideration.

There was an added difficulty to the old copper cents in that they became foul and dirty and were so cumbersome as to be disliked by consumer and merchant alike. This was a minor irritant compared to the fact that in the late 1840s the price of copper rose once more, prompted by the problems in the monetary system created by the large quantities of newly discovered California gold. By 1851 the Mint was, at times, actually losing money on each copper coin issued to the public.

Problems with the price of copper led the Mint, as early as 1850, to strike pattern cent pieces, some with a central hole like those made in the Orient. The latter idea was not all that practical and was soon abandoned. The urgency somewhat let up when the price of copper fell early in 1852 but still everyone knew that something had to be done.

The fall in price was only temporary, however and during the spring of 1852 the Mint had to pay 40 cents per pound for the planchets prepared by private companies; it is worth noting that the 168 grain weight for the cent, set in late 1795, meant that 41 2/3rds pieces were equal to one avoirdupois pound. (The Philadelphia Mint had not prepared its own copper planchets since the late 1790s.) However, once the price reached about 38 cents the Mint started losing money due to costs of dies, wages and transportation charges. At one point the price reached 42 cents but in due course did drop to a more reasonable level where a small profit could be eked out.

The gyrations of 1852 created fresh discussions about solving the problem. In 1853 Feuchtwanger’s old ideas about German Silver were resurrected and brought up to date. Melter and refiner James Booth investigated varying combinations of this alloy. By the summer of that year he was convinced that German Silver was the answer and was able to persuade Mint Director James Ross Snowden of this. Patterns were then struck in the fall of 1853 but not in the old large cent format but rather a much smaller diameter.

Although it appeared that in 1853 Booth, and perhaps Snowden as well, had decided upon a particular size and alloy for the new cent, the consensus did not last all that long. Others suggested a variety of changes and throughout 1854 and 1855 quite a few of these ideas were in fact translated into pattern coins. One school of thought suggested that the weight of the cent be drastically reduced but that it remain copper and this idea was in vogue for a time among Mint officials. Bronze was also suggested but was rejected although it did become the alloy for cent coinage in 1864.

Most of the patterns struck in these years have little direct connection with the final result but others did and would become famous among collectors, both then and now. In particular, Snowden ordered that a flying eagle, loosely modeled on the Gobrecht dollar of 1836-1839, be used for the obverse of a pattern cent while the reverse was to have a simple wreath enclosing the denomination.

The first of these Flying Eagle pattern cents was about the size of a quarter dollar and struck in 1854 although specimens dated 1855 also exist; both are highly sought after by pattern collectors and those who specialize in the regular Flying Eagle cents of 1857-1858. Several different alloys were tried but Snowden at that time was unable to find a single combination of metals that satisfied everyone.

Melter an refiner Booth, in the spring of 1856, finally hit upon the combination of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel as the ideal metal. Booth persuaded Director Snowden that this new copper-nickel metal was what they had been looking for and Snowden agreed, after a few weeks of consideration. Booth also thought that the new coins should be struck at the rate of 80 pieces to the Troy pound (each to weigh 72 grains), producing a large profit for the government; they were to be small and rather thick so as not to be confused with silver coins.

One of Booth’s arguments was to have far-reaching consequences. He believed, and rightfully so, that it was the government stamp and not the intrinsic value that caused minor coins to circulate in the United States and in most European countries. It had long been official policy to deter counterfeiting by placing a reasonable amount of metal in each coin but Booth now suggested that the very hardness of nickel would prove a sufficient safeguard against false coins. (The intrinsic worth of the proposed cent was less than half its face value.)

On July 11, 1856, Snowden formally recommended this proposal to Treasury Secretary James Guthrie. Half cent dies – much larger than the proposed coin – were used to strike a few patterns as a temporary measure. The patterns were carefully examined by Treasury officials and also sent to the White House where President Franklin Pierce was an interested party to the proposed change. Within a short time Guthrie notified Snowden that he should proceed with striking pattern cents in the proposed smaller size of 19mm.
Snowden ordered Chief Engraver James B. Longacre to execute the necessary dies. The eagle was now made even closer to that on the 1836 Gobrecht dollar reverse. The reverse wreath was not quite as difficult to prepare as it was simply adapted, via the reducing machine, from the one already on the $3 gold piece first struck in 1854. Longacre was very careful in preparing these new dies as everyone was well aware that the change in alloy would, to some extent, depend on the quality of his artwork.

The engraver was a slow and careful craftsman and it was not until the first week of November that the dies were finally ready. The melter and refiner then prepared planchets for the new dies and extensive tests were carried out to learn all that could be gathered from a trial run. The results were positive and by late November all was in readiness; several hundred copper-nickel cents, all bearing the 1856 date, were struck under Snowden’s direct orders. A bill was introduced into Congress authorizing the coinage of copper-nickel cents on the new standard and the new pattern cents were freely distributed to anyone the Mint director thought might be able to influence the congressional debate and final vote.

It has been estimated that perhaps 800 uncirculated 1856 Flying Eagle cents were made during the winter of 1856-1857. This many pattern coins being given out certainly gained a wide circulation and did prove an important factor in the enactment of the bill into law on Feb. 21, 1857. Snowden had won his battle for the copper-nickel cent.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cent has rightly been given credit as one of the key coins that fueled the interest in collecting among the public in the late 1850s. One collector of more than a century ago, George Rice, was so taken with this little pledge of history that he was able through shrewd buying to amass more than 700 pieces, no mean accomplishment.
After the law was signed by President Pierce, who seems to have thrown his support as well behind the new concept, little time was wasted at the Mint in preparing for the Flying Eagle cent coinage. The last copper cents were minted in January and the working dies were ready for the new coinage in late March 1857. In April there was full-scale coinage of the new Flying Eagle cents.

A considerable number of the new coins were stockpiled and on May 25 the first public distribution was made. The February law had stipulated that the new cent coins could be exchanged for old coppers or Spanish silver coins. A large crowd assembled at the Philadelphia Mint for the opening day of distribution and two very long lines (one for silver exchange, the other for copper) formed from the Mint courtyard.

One had to exchange at least $5 worth and the Mint had made up little sacks of coins containing 500 cents. There was so much demand for these new coins, instantly dubbed “nicks” by the public, that some of those at the end of the line were willing to pay two or three cents for one of them!

Mint presses were busy, striking 100,000 per day for months on end, due to heavy public demand. Both merchants and public were glad to be rid of the cumbersome copper coins. Within a matter of months the bulk of transactions requiring small coins was in the form of Flying Eagle cents. Many of the pattern 1856 coins went into circulation at this time; there was no organized body of collectors searching for such pieces – yet.

Although at first merchants were more than pleased to be rid of the old and clunky copper coins, this proved not to be the case within a year. There was no legal-tender status to minor coinage and those who had a surplus of the new cents had to exchange them, at a discount, at a brokerage to get gold or silver coins. These surpluses for merchants were actually quite common as many citizens took an odd delight in paying for purchases with handfuls of the new coins.

Although coinage was even heavier in 1858, Director Snowden had come to realize the depth of irritation in the business community over the mass mintages. Some of the people who disliked the new coins resorted to spreading rumors about how poisonous they were, especially when swallowed by children (an interesting antecedent to the poisoning claims about copper-coated zinc cents introduced in 1982)

There was also a relatively minor problem connected with the actual coinage. The original dies created in 1856 and 1857 did not always bring up the design all that well in the coinage presses. In 1858 the obverse hub, from which the working dies derive, was redesigned slightly to lower the relief of the eagle. This change can easily be seen by noting that the newer dies have slightly smaller lettering and in particular the letters A and M of AMERICA do not touch; in the earlier version they do. This obverse variety was in use when the last Flying Eagle cents were coined in December 1858.

In the meantime, the end of the old large cent had an unexpected by-product when many people began putting together date sets of these coins before they left circulation forever. A few enterprising collectors actually persuaded Mint Director Snowden to be allowed the privilege of going through the exchanged cents brought to the Mint. Coin collecting grew at a good pace during 1857 and 1858 and by early in 1859 there was a fair number of collectors in the country.

Although the first effort by most of the new collectors was to obtain date sets of cents, especially for the years before 1815, it was not long before many of them learned about the rare 1856 Flying Eagle cent. There were not enough to go around, so an obliging Director Snowden saw to it that another batch was made, this time in proof condition. The sometimes seen estimate of 1,200 proof specimens made in 1858 and 1859 cannot be too far from the mark; this gives an overall total of about 2,000 pieces, a number that does not go very far in today’s strong coin market.

Snowden openly sold these to collectors as original coins but also traded them with numismatists in an effort to obtain specimens of rare or interesting items not in the Mint collection. The profits raised from selling the pieces also were used to buy rare coins and medals.

Unfortunately the restriking of the Flying Eagle cents gave Snowden and others at the Mint ideas about using older dies, such as those used to strike Gobrecht dollars in the 1830s, to supply rarities for collectors. In some cases Mint employees used the dies without Snowden’s knowledge and created something of a national scandal; the restriking ended in early 1860.