It was a glorious thing when the people stood in line to obtain their first examples of the 1857 Flying Eagle cent. For officials at the time, it was a welcome relief since there was uncertainty about how the coin would be received.
The 1857 Flying Eagle cent was not simply released one day in 1857, causing the people to get all excited. Rather, it evolved over a long period of time.
Coins of the United States had a long history of being worth very close to their face value in the metal from which they were made. That tradition had dated back to the first authorizations of 1792 when lawmakers were perhaps too generous with the amount of copper, silver or gold they required in coins. The paper issues that helped finance the Revolutionary War had become basically worthless, leaving the public with a bad taste in their mouths and an even worse hole in their finances. The new government would never survive if it kept sticking its citizens with worthless paper, and it would reflect negatively on the government if the new coins were viewed as inferior. Roughly one-third of the nation had not been supporting the Revolution, so the future of the government was anything but secure.
Over the years, new generations of lawmakers had learned from the first and were cautious about coins. When the amount of gold in gold coins needed to be lowered slightly, it took a decade to happen. When the silver content needed to be reduced, officials first tried a 75 percent silver three-cent piece. Ultimately they had to risk a negative public reaction and made the change in 1853.
By this time, thought was already being given to the large copper cent. Besides its inconvenient size, the amount of copper it contained was a real concern. If copper rose slightly in price, the cent could become more costly to make than its face value. But there seemed to be no good way to make a smaller coin worth close to one cent. Then one day a smelter at the Mint proposed using a novel copper-nickel alloy with the idea that it was not really the metal value of the coin, but rather the government?s backing, that caused people to accept the coins.
A pattern 1856 Flying Eagle cent was taken to Congress for approval and with that a stockpile of 1857 Flying Eagle cents was made. Fortunately the public liked it and before the year was out a total of 17,450,000 were made. It was saved in some numbers, but one of the few existing proofs is very desirable and scarce today.
The 1857 is readily available in circulated grades. It is just $26 in G-4. In MS-60 it lists for $320, which is slightly more than expected, but the price reflects the coin?s historic value as well. Similarly, it lists for 4,000 in MS-65.
As one of the two years for this type, the 1857 seems a little better than the 1858 with its lower mintage and place in history as the first small-size cent.