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First Small Cent's Flight Was Short and Turbulent
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
February 27, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The Flying Eagle cent’s flight was short and turbulent. The Mint struck 1856-dated patterns for distribution to congressmen and newspaper editors. The idea was to publicize the cent’s new design, smaller size and copper-nickel composition. Later, the Mint created 1856 Flying Eagle cent restrikes for collectors. Millions of regular-issue Flying Eagle cents poured from the Mint’s presses in 1857 and 1858, until striking problems compelled officials to replace the design with the Indian Head cent.

Respect for the Flying Eagle cent has echoed for more than a century. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens considered it the most beautiful U.S. coin and worked on a similar flying eagle for the reverse of a new cent in 1907.

“I am using a flying eagle,” he wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, “a modification of the device which was used on the cent of 1857. I had not seen that coin for many years, and was so impressed by it that I thought if carried out with some modifications, nothing better could be done. It is by all odds the best design on any American coin.”

Although Saint-Gaudens’ cent didn’t make it into production, he placed a similar eagle on the reverse of the gold $20.

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The Flying Eagle cent originated as a cost-cutting measure. The Mint had struck pure-copper large cents since 1793, but by the mid-1850s they had become too expensive to produce. Many people complained about their unattractive color and odor.

The Mint struck pattern small cents in 1850. Officials didn’t seriously consider changing the cent’s size until a few years later. The melter and refiner, James Booth, experimented with several alloys.

Booth recommended a mixture of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel. Nickel gave the cent a lighter color, greater durability and more intrinsic value.

The copper-nickel cent was the first U.S. coin containing nickel. Before the introduction of the nickel five-cent piece in the 1860s, copper-nickel cents were known as “nickels” or “nicks.” Equally as significant as the new cent’s size and alloy was its new design. Engraver James B. Longacre originally worked on Liberty Head designs for the cent. Mint Director James R. Snowden suggested a Flying Eagle.

Longacre copied the eagle from the Gobrecht dollar. On the reverse he placed a wreath of corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco, the same as on the gold dollar and gold $3 piece.

The Mint struck pattern Flying Eagle large cents dated 1854 and 1855. On July 11, 1856, the Mint director sent 50 experimental copper-nickel pieces to the Treasury secretary. He explained that half cent dies had been used to save time and money.

Longacre completed the dies in November 1856. In December, Snowden informed Rep. John S. Phelps, of Missouri, that he was “already pressed on all hands, and from every quarter, for the new cent. In fact, the public are very anxious for its issue.”

The Mint reportedly had a stockpile of Flying Eagle cents ready to be released when authorized by law.

Estimates of the number of pattern 1856 Flying Eagle cents struck have ranged from less than a thousand to more than 15,000. A mintage of around 2,000 seems to be as good a guess as any, judging from the number that have survived.

In the 1864 book A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins in the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States, Snowden classifed the 1856 Flying Eagle cent as an experimental piece. He wrote that it was “impossible to state the number coined.”

Whatever the number may have been, it was large for a pattern. That turned out to be a good thing. If only a handful had been minted, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent might have languished in obscurity. Instead, it became famous and desirable. In 1908, the Washington Post said the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was the most widely recognized U.S. coin rarity. Coin value guides list it alongside regular issues.

Most 1856 Flying Eagle cents were struck on thick, copper-nickel planchets like the 1857 and 1858 circulation strikes. Others were struck in bronze, pure copper or pure nickel. One variety lacks the inscription “One Cent.” Another pattern Flying Eagle cent has neither the date nor “United States of America.” Some patterns have a smaller eagle than the circulation strikes, and an oak wreath and shield reverse.

Four 1856 Flying Eagle cents were presented to President Franklin Pierce. James Longacre owned nearly a dozen examples. Congressional committee members, newspaper editors and other influential people also received pattern Flying Eagle cents.

The editor of the North American thanked Snowden for “several of the new cent coins just produced under an act of Congress.” The Feb. 6, 1857, issue of the Liberty Weekly Tribune reprinted his comments:

“They are a decided improvement on the old and necessarily heavy cent. The new piece is rather larger than a quarter [eagle]. On the one side is a side view of an eagle flying, around the border being the words, ‘United States of America,’ and at the bottom the date, 1856.

“On the other side is a wreath formed of ears of corn, heads of wheat, rye and other cereals, and grape leaves, and inside is the designation ‘One Cent,’ the lettering of which seems to be too light.

“The coin is neat and convenient. Being alloyed with silver [sic], the color is much lighter than that of the common cent. The most obvious objection to it is that it will be too readily mistaken by careless people for a quarter eagle.”

The editor of the Hornellsville Tribune attached more importance to the alloy than the design. In the Jan. 29, 1857, issue, he wrote:

“The new cent is to be one-eighth nickel, and consequently much smaller and much more convenient. It will be of a lighter color when new, though probably as dark when old.

“A flying eagle is to take the place of Liberty’s head, in order that it may not be mistaken for the [$2.50] gold piece.”

Unlike the bird on the quarter eagle, the eagle on the cent did not hold arrows in its talons. Writing in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1857, Ike Partington referred to the arrows as “thunderbolts.” “The American eagle has lately broken out on the new cent,” he added, “and seems as if in his hurry he has dropped all his thunder.”

The Jan. 8, 1857, issue of The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser said:

“The editor of the Providence, R.I. Journal has been permitted to see one of the new cents just struck off at the Mint. He describes it as a little larger than a dime, and nearly twice as thick. On one side is a flying eagle, with the inscription ‘United States of America 1856’ around the circle. On the other is ‘One Cent’ within a wreath. It is altogether the handsomest coins of so low a denomination that we have ever seen.”

The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer received an 1856 Flying Eagle cent in time for Christmas. “We yesterday saw a specimen of the new cent,” he wrote in the Dec. 23, 1856, issue. “It is a truly neat and beautiful coin. The material is nickel and copper, and the size is a little larger than a 10-cent piece, although considerably thicker.

“One side is embellished with the figure of an eagle in full flight, and the other with a wreath composed of the material staples of the country, encircling the words ‘One Cent.’ The weight is light, and the appearance is quite attractive.”

By the 1860s, 1856 Flying Eagle cents were selling for $2. The Mint made restrikes to sell to collectors or use as trading material to enhance the U.S. Mint Cabinet Collection.

Articles and ads in publications from comic books to general-interest magazines have spread the 1856 Flying Eagle cent’s fame. A headline in the Feb. 2, 1908, issue of The Sunday Vindicator said, “Flying Eagle Pennies of 1856 are Better Than Gold Eagles.” The article said:

“It would prove profitable for all persons to carefully look for the date on pennies, as collectors are offering from $12 to $25 for those bearing the flying eagle and dated 1856. There is said to be over a thousand of these pennies in circulation at the present time, which fact is accounted for by people not knowing their value as a curio.…

“The engravers in the United States Mint fixed upon the flying eagle design for the benefit of members of the coinage committee, who wished to see the design worked in various metals and alloys.

“Flying Eagle cents vary in value according to their composition. Curio and coin collectors will willingly pay as high as $25 for a cent of 1856, on which the date and other inscriptions are plain, and there is no doubt as to their being genuine.…

“There are several coin collectors in this city who have been on the lookout for the 1856 pennies, but as yet none of them reported having found one.”

The Numismatic Bank of Fort Worth ran an ad in the June 1916 issue of Popular Mechanics, stating, “Will pay $3 to $10 for Flying Eagle cent dated 1856.” Clarke & Co. of LeRoy, N.Y., had an ad in the same issue, offering $4.25. By 1958, classified ads in Popular Mechanics were offering $500 for an 1856 Flying Eagle cent.

For those who could afford it, collecting 1856 Flying Eagle cents became an obsession. R.B. Leeds of Atlantic City accumulated more than 100. Henry Chapman auctioned the Leeds hoard in 1906. The catalog noted that he had “turned his attention to accumulating all the examples he could of certain dates, his especial hobby being 1856 Flying Eagle cents.”

Detroit department store owner George W. Rice did even better. He accumulated 756 1856 Flying Eagle cents. When the hoard was dispersed in 1911, many of them probably went to John Beck of Pittsburgh. He was known for his standing offer of $10 for any 1856 Flying Eagle cent, regardless of condition.

Beck wound up with 731. He died in the 1920s, but his Flying Eagle cent hoard remained in a Pittsburgh bank vault until the 1970s. It was sold off gradually to minimize the impact on prices.

Andrew C. Zabriski, one-time president of the American Numismatic Society, owned 14 1856 Flying Eagle cents. E.H.R. Green had nearly a dozen.

Flying Eagle cents didn’t exist on a legal basis until the Act of Feb. 21, 1857 became law. It also eliminated the half cent and provided for the retirement of Spanish coins which had been legal tender in the United States.

Millions of Flying Eagle cents were stockpiled for the official release. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported the coins went into circulation on May 30, 1857. In Philadelphia, the first Flying Eagle cents were released on May 25, 1857. The Philadelphia Bulletin reported:

“Just as the State House bell had finished striking nine o’clock the doors of the Mint were thrown open, and in rushed the eager crowd—paper parcels, well-filled handkerchiefs, carpet bags, baskets and all.…

“The clerks and weighers exerted themselves to the utmost to meet the demands of all comers, and to deal out the little canvas bags to all who were entitled to receive them. But the crowd grew apace, and we estimated that at one time there could not have been less than 1,000 persons in the zigzag lines, weighed down with small change, and waiting patiently for their turn....

“It was, in effect, the funeral of the old coppers and of the ancient Spanish coins, and the giving of a practical working existence to the new cents.”

The canvas bags held 500 Flying Eagle cents and were labeled with a “5.” Although $5 was a large sum, Snowden informed the Treasury secretary the demand was enormous.

“We had on hand this morning $30,000 worth, that is 3 million pieces,” he wrote. “Nearly all of this amount will be paid out today. The coinage will go forward, however, at the rate of 100,000 or more pieces per day, and the demand will be met as well as we can.”

A drawing of an 1856 Flying Eagle cent appeared in the Feb. 7, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The story said:

“We give you, out of the abundance of the liberal resources of our establishment, [an illustration] of the new cent.

“You see for yourselves the patriotic design—the wreath entwined with the vine and Indian corn on the one side, and that everlasting American eagle ‘spreading its wings and soaring.’

“The [illustration] gives an exact representation of the size, with the exception of the thickness, which is about equal to that of two half eagles put together.

“The composition is of copper and nickel. As the former metal has become dearer, from the fact of its supply not having kept up with the manufacturing demand for it, the government gains by the alloy, as although nickel is comparatively dear, the quantity used of the mixed metal is smaller.…

“We think the public will be a gainer by the new coin. Its smaller size makes it much more convenient for handling, the less burdensome for transportation, while the neater look and the freedom from the brassy odor renders it much more acceptable to fastidious delicacy.

“Ladies may now venture to touch with their ungloved fingers small change, without being, like Lady MacBeth, unable to wash out the ‘damned spot’ of a base contamination.”

The June 10, 1857, issue of the Janesville Morning Gazette said, “The new cent coin wins opinions anything but golden.” The Lewisburg, Pa., Agitator claimed the Flying Eagle cent depicted “a nondescript bird.”

Flying Eagle cent production led to the discovery of an advanced method for concentrating nickel. The May 30, 1857, issue of Scientific American reprinted a story from the Philadelphia Daily News:

“As appropriate to the issue of the new cent, which as the reader is aware is composed partly of nickel, we notice that a new method of concentrating nickel and cobalt ores has been recently discovered by Theophilus Meny.

“It is claimed for the new discovery that, whereas it now takes several weeks to concentrate a hundred tons of ore, producing 30 to 35 percent, by it the same percentage may be realized in the same time from a thousand tons.

“This is, without doubt, a most important discovery, and if found to be really practical, will add immensely to the works as well as the stocks of the Gap Mining Company, from the mines of which the supply of nickel now being used at the Mint is derived.

“The Gap Mines produce both copper and nickel in large quantities, and being located within about 50 to 60 miles of our city, they possess a value far beyond any others known to us.”

The Mint struck more than 17 million Flying Eagle cents in 1857. In the early 1900s, F.R. Alvord listed three dozen 1857 Flying Eagle cent varieties.

Production soared to more than 24 million in 1858. The 1913 edition of Scott’s Standard Catalogue had David Proskey’s list of 35 1858 Flying Eagle cent varieties. W.C. Eaton expanded it to more than 60 in a series of articles in The Numismatist.

Eaton probably deserves credit for discovering the 1858 “Large Letters” and “Small Letters” varieties. He wrote in the January 1916 issue of The Numismatist, “The large letters can be easily distinguished, aside from their size, by the fact that in all cases of the large letters the A and M of ‘America’ are connected at the feet.”

The 1858/7 Flying Eagle cent is a recent discovery. Valued at $175 in Fine-12 grade, it is the only Flying Eagle overdate.

Because portions of the eagle’s head and tail feathers were directly opposite the thick wreath, many Flying Eagle cents were weakly struck. In 1857, Snowden suggested replacing the eagle with a portrait of Christopher Columbus, but nothing came of the idea.

Writing to Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb in November 1858, Snowden said the Flying Eagle cent did not seem acceptable to the public. It gave way to the Indian Head cent in 1859.

In 1895, the Washington Star claimed, “The flying eagle on the nickel cent was removed because people insisted it was a buzzard.” Today, the buzzard looks good to collectors.

It may seem ironic that an engraver once criticized for his lack of ability created one of the most attractive U.S. coins, or that Flying Eagle cents intended for circulation were struck in only two years. Yet the design won the admiration of generations, especially in the case of the valuable 1856 patterns.

In a 1968 Coins article, Maurice Gould wrote, “Somewhere, whether in New England or California, in some button box, old trunk, or in an attic, there are still some of the 1856 Flying Eagle cents which were given as presentation pieces, or purchased many years ago when they were not quite so valuable.” Like the statuette in “The Maltese Falcon,” the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is still for many collectors “the stuff dreams are made of.”

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