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Short series tells interesting story

Flying Eagle cents make an extremely short set. There are just three dates in it, 1856-1858, and several varieties.

Flying Eagle cents make an extremely short set. There are just three dates in it, 1856-1858, and several varieties.


If you want the very best, you probably can’t afford the set. If you are willing to settle for less than top quality, you will still have to wrestle with your budget to make it work.

You can pin all of the blame on the 1856. It is rare. It is in demand. If you buy one, in any grade, you get not only a great coin, but an important piece of American numismatic history, but that fact is sometimes lost as over the years not all that much attention has been paid to the series.

Perhaps the most important reason Flying Eagle cents don’t get the attention they deserve is the simple fact that a complete collection is only a few coins. Like 20-cent pieces or Anthony dollars, short sets can hurt potential collector interest. People like to complete their collections, but they also like having sets with more than just a few coins in them.
In the case of the Flying Eagle cent, with its history as the first small cent produced by the United States and its trial-and-error approach to design and issuance, there was never a strong likelihood that it would be a coin issued for a long period of time.

The first small cent was an experiment that had officials very nervous. What they were doing by making a new smaller cent was possibly risking public outcry and that fear made many of the actions taken in the 1850s seem timid or confused today.

By the early 1850s, there were troubles on the horizon, but officials at the time were not terribly enthusiastic about confronting potential problems. The old large cent, which had been around since 1793, was potentially going to cost more to make than its face value as the price of copper had been going up over time. It was a large and bulky coin the size of a quarter. For the Mint, to lose money making a coin was just out of the question.

The large cent had another problem in that the public was growing tired of the large coppers. Some claimed they became dirty with use and there was the simple practical matter of walking around with a number in your pocket. They were in a word, heavy. If you acquired too many in change, you knew it.

While the potential cost of producing large cents was a problem and even though the public appeared not to like them, there was a fear that the public would like smaller cents even less because then their face value would be far higher than their metallic content – a concept we are used to today, but one that was alien to a pre-Civil War citizenry. Other than the recently introduced 3-cent silver, all coins were full weight in metal and there were no ifs, ands or buts about it.

Although few would have had first-hand knowledge, the first coins of the United States had been made, if anything, too valuable in terms of their metallic content. It was for a good reason. The Revolutionary War had been largely financed via Continental Currency and other paper. When the war was over, the paper had become nearly worthless. It might have been issued in a good cause, but it was not good money and the public, once burned by it, remembered. Few were happy that a paper dollar was worth only a few cents.

If the new federal government was to have any chance of lasting, its coins had to be good and they were perhaps too good in terms of metal value.

By the early 1850s, officials were busily trying to figure out what to do about the cent situation. Having coins cost more to produce than face value was not new. It had led to a reduction in weight of gold coins in 1834. In 1853, the weight of silver coins from the half dollar on down saw their weights reduced and arrows put by the dates to indicate this.

But even with their reduced weights, the intent was to basically to put the metallic value just at face value.

Trying to keep the cent’s metallic content close to face value led to an attempt at making a ring cent. A German silver composition of copper, nickel and zinc was also considered, but virtually every proposed solution carried with it technical problems that made everyone go back to the drawing board to find a different solution.

It almost certainly was an interesting period to be around the Mint. Everyone seemed to have an idea. Mint Director James Ross Snowden was encouraging experiments and he chipped in with his own idea that a flying eagle, which was similar to the one seen on the Gobrecht dollars of 1836-1839 would be an interesting approach.

Finally, the Mint’s smelter, James Booth had an idea for a mixture of 12 percent nickel and 88 percent copper. It was also believed to be Booth who bravely offered up the notion that the alloy was not critical to the success of the new cents but rather the legal backing of the government which would guarantee their acceptance. Moreover, with a limited metallic value, a host of issues would be solved, but the idea still carried that terrible risk of rejection by a public who wanted coins of full metallic value.

Everyone all the way up to President Franklin Pierce was briefed on the idea. Apparently, everyone signed off on the idea, or at least on the idea of testing the idea.

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Chief Engraver James B. Longacre was told to prepare patterns. That was one of his strengths. So was using old designs over and over again. He jumped right on the idea of the flying eagle and for the reverse basically used the wreath he had put on the $3 gold piece introduced in 1854.

It was a classic Longacre approach to a problem, but it was good enough for officials to have several hundred 1856 Flying Eagle cent patterns struck. The number is believed to be as high as 600. They were put to good use.

The idea was to show other officials how the new small-sized cents would look in the hope of gaining congressional approval. The situation was similar to that which existed when in 1974 pattern aluminum cents were produced.

While the aluminum cents were supposed to be returned to the Mint when they were done being studied, in Congress there was no such stipulation for the 1856 Flying Eagle pattern. Many were simply pocketed as souvenirs. This approach apparently worked as on Feb. 21, 1857, a bill authorizing the small cent was passed by Congress and quickly signed by the President into law.

The change to a small cent required a number of changes at the Mint. In the past, cent planchets had been purchased from outside sources, most recently from a company by the name of Crocker Brothers. With the small cent, the Mint took on the responsibility of making the planchets and while that went on and production began, it was decided to stockpile the new cents in order to have an ample supply before their release.

By May 25, 1857, the supply was felt to be adequate and the new cents were readied for their debut. There actually was planning involved as the public would be able to exchange old large copper cents and half cents as well as Mexican and other foreign silver for the new coins as foreign coins were still in circulation, but were outlawed as legal tender by the same legislation that authorized the small cent.

What followed was a scene rarely if ever experienced at the Mint in Philadelphia.

The Mint director observed the scene as people turned in their old coppers and foreign silver for the Flying Eagle cents. He reported to the Treasury secretary on the first day of the Flying Eagle cent exchange writing, “The demand for them is enormous.” On that first day, some 3 million were dispersed.

The newspaper reports were humorous as reporters were apparently stunned by the scene of people desperately trying to acquire the new coins. Some even paid premiums to avoid the long lines.

A report in the Philadelphia Bulletin said, “Those who were served rushed into 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 still heavier advance.”

Simply put, the Flying Eagle cent was being sold for a profit in its very first day, but this phenomenon had little to do with collectors. The Philadelphia Bulletin again commented, “We doubt 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.”

In some respects, the animated scene at the Mint that day was also the birth of many new collectors. The retirement of the old coins caused some to pay attention to what had been in their hands for over 60 years.

For existing collectors, the release of the new cents caused interest and that interest saw the discovery that although there were 1857 cents being released to circulation, there existed a small number of coins dated 1856. They wanted some.

Back in the 1850s collectors in and around Philadelphia had a major advantage. It was not viewed as all that unusual for them to simply try to purchase whatever they might want at the Mint. With word of a possible 1856 cent in addition to the 1857, some immediately went to the Mint and did the normal thing and asked to buy 1856 cents.

Apparently, officials decided to give the people what they wanted and the requested 1856 cents were supplied. There is little doubt the first perhaps 600 pieces were patterns. Those released patterns, however, took on a role not unlike a regular coin as some were most certainly spent. With the filling of the orders from the public in the months following the May cent release, the precise nature of the 1856 cent became even more confused and it was not helped when the Mint needing to meet orders struck additional numbers, which included business strikes as well as proofs.

The 1856, whether a pattern or regular coin, was an immediate sensation. By 1859 they were selling for a dollar, which was a pretty impressive price increase. Like a later generation of collectors who dreamed of owning the 1909-S VDB, the collectors just before the Civil War had the 1856 cent on their minds.

While scarce as a result of its impact on collectors, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent assumed an importance far greater than its simple scarcity and important historical position would suggest.

The precise mintage total for the 1856 is unknown. There were business strikes and proofs. There may be as many as 2,500 1856 Flying Eagle cents, but estimates have ranged from 1,400 to 3,500. No one is really certain. We are certain, though, that the coin was heavily saved as a prize item and in one case a hoard of perhaps 500 pieces was found in Pittsburgh.
Whatever the actual total mintage, and whatever the outcome of the debate as to whether the 1856 is a pattern or a regular issue, it remains very popular with a specialist audience.

In G-4, the coin was $1,500 in 1998. Now it is $6,250. That’s a very large gain in percentage terms.

In upper grades, the 1856 is enormously desirable. In MS-60 it is $16,500. Back in 1998 it was $6,950.

In MS-65 it has gone from a 1998 price of $21,000 to $65,000.

At a Heritage auction in 2003, an MS-66 Snow-3 1856 sold for $103,500. At a 2004 auction, an MS-66 went for $172,500. For outsized gains like this, few would have picked the 1856 Flying Eagle cent as the coin that would generate them.

Then there are Proof-65 examples that are currently priced at $28,500.

In all cases, a genuine 1856 Flying Eagle cent shows the upright of the “5” in the date connecting with the center of the knob below. On most examples, the reverse letter “E” is connected by large serifs.

In the case of the regular 1857 and 1858 cents there were large mintages to reflect the high level of initial demand. The 1857 mintage was 17,450,000 while the 24,600,000 1858 mintage was divided between small and large letter varieties. In the large letter variety the “A” and “M” in “AMERICA” are connected at their base while in the small-letter variety they are clearly separated.

The 1858 mintage for the two varieties appears to be roughly equal as a G-4 1857 of either variety of 1858 are virtually identically priced around $28. The 1858/7 overdate is $65 in the same grade.

Prices, of course, are higher for MS-60 examples. The 1857 is $425. The large-letter 1858 is $445 and the small-letter variety is $425. The overdate is $3,300.

If you move to MS-65, the 1857 is $3,500, the large-letter 1858 is $3,850 and the small-letter 1858 is $3,650. The overdate is $60,000. The latter, though, might not even exist in that grade.

The ironic thing about the Flying Eagle cent is that despite its immensely popular first few days, it quickly saw production outpace demand. Moreover, despite the feeling that it was the government’s backing that would guarantee their success, they had no legal tender status.

It did not take long before some were trying to pay off all of their obligations in Flying Eagle cents and merchants were forced to pay brokers simply to avoid being stuck with floods of cents. That situation prompted complaints to Mint Director Snowden. He tried to solve the problem with yet a new design, the Indian Head cent in 1859.

In reality, that idea was never going to work, but the Civil War broke out before there was time for people to realize that the Indian design was not an answer to the problem. The Civil War solved the problem. People began hoarding coins. First the gold went. Then the silver disappeared. Finally, the cent was hoarded as well. Suddenly, there were no complaints of being flooded with unwanted coins.

It is actually hard to put the Flying Eagle cent in its appropriate place in history. As a collection, the coin has the major flaw that it is such a short set. In the past, it was simply included with the Indian cent series.

There can be no doubt the Flying Eagle cent as the first small-size cent certainly has an enormously important place in U.S. numismatic history. Certainly the cent has changed a number of times over the years, but in fact the most dramatic change of all traces directly back to the Flying Eagle cent when it replaced the large cent. There is also ample evidence that when that change was made the public was happy to have a new smaller cent.

The most important contribution of the Flying Eagle cent may well be to coin collecting. We know it had significant impact in a couple of respects. The fact that large cents were clearly going to be replaced created many new collectors. By pulling dates from circulation they might have helped to save many large cents from certain destruction.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cent in particular also helped to make collecting more popular. It was a great coin for the time as it was available, but scarce enough to be desirable.

Even with instant means of communication, there is no doubt the nation and collectors learned about the new cent quickly.

There is something very special and important about a scarce cent that quickly sells for a premium and the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was the first in a line that later would include the 1877 Indian Head cent, the 1909-S VDB Lincoln and even the 1955 doubled-die cent. By generating special interest on the part of many people, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent made a significant contribution to the growth of coin collecting.

When you consider how small a Flying Eagle cent collection is, you have to be impressed by how large the coin looms in American numismatic history. When you consider the 1856 cent’s price climb in recent years, you can appreciate its importance even if it has appreciated to a point well beyond your personal reach.

It was the first coin of widespread collector dreams. That dream that spurs collectors ever onward has been with us ever since.

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