Half-Cents and Cents : Flying Eagle Cent

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Obverse of 1856 Flying Eagle Cent Reverse of 1856 Flying Eagle Cent

Richard Giedroyc: Small Cent collecting is enjoyed by perhaps more coin collectors than any other field of coins other than Morgan silver dollars. Most are easy to find and, with the exception of some key dates, values are generally modest.  Small Cents begin with the Flying Eagle Cents of 1856 to 1858, a short but surprisingly challenging series.

Small Cents are a transition in several respects. Large Cents were still struck through 1857 and the metal composition of the Flying Eagle Cents is not the same as what was used on later issues. Even the thickness and weight of our smaller 1-Cent coin has changed since the first ones appeared.  The Large Cent was increasingly unpopular by the 1840s and since the denomination was not legal tender (only silver and gold coins were legal tender in the United States), many merchants and banks refused to accept the coins. Others accepted the Large Cents at deep discounts. What was worse, by 1851, it was costing the Mint $1.06 to strike a Dollar's worth of 1-Cent coins. A negative seignorage was at hand (seignorage is the profit the Mint makes between the cost of manufacturing a coin and its face value)!

The diameter of the Large Cent was modeled after the British Penny denomination.  As early as 1837, a New York dentist, Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger, proposed a Small Cent of what he called “argentan” or “American silver” (actually German silver composition).  Feuchtwanger Cents are collectible in their own right, but are generally not included in a collection of U.S. Small Cents.  As the cost of producing Large Cents exceeded their value, experimental Cent patterns and various proposals for a practical metal composition for a Small Cent began to be explored. As Large Cent blanks became not only expensive, but almost unavailable, Mint Director James R. Snowden decided to strike a Small Cent of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel at a weight of 4.67 grams (Large Cents have a weight of 10.89 grams and are composed of pure copper beginning in 1795).

Snowden didn’t choose this mix at random. He was being lobbied heavily by Joseph Wharton (and his monopoly of nickel mines) to use an alloy including this Nickel.  The flying eagle design appearing on the reverse of the Gobrecht Silver Dollars of 1836 to 1839 was adopted by Snowden for the new Small Cent. The wreath on the reverse of the new Small Cents was borrowed from the reverse design on the Gold Dollar and the $3 coin denominations designed by James B. Longacre. It is interesting to note that initially, the Secretary of the Treasury (rather than Wharton) had the decision -making power regarding the coin design and that there was no Act passed by Congress in 1856 authorizing a Small Cent.

Snowden ordered about 1,000 1856 Flying Eagle Cents struck without official authorization. Therefore, from a legal standpoint, all 1856 Flying Eagle Cents may be considered to have been illegally struck and issued (as with the 1804 Silver Dollar and the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel). However, the Secret Service probably never will, but would have the legal right to, seize these coins.

It is difficult to determine how many 1856-dated Flying Eagle Cents were struck.  At least 634 were given to politicians and other well connected people.  During 1858 and 1859, more were restruck using the original dies. Not all restrikes can be differentiated from the original strikes. It is known that collector George W. Rice at one time owned 756 of the 1856 Flying Eagle Cent. Considering that many of the Rice specimens came from circulation, there were undoubtedly more struck. Collector John Beck accumulated 531 coins of the same date.

The 1856 Flying Eagle Cent is usually divided into three main varieties: 1) the original pieces struck for Mint and government purposes in 1856 and early 1857, 2) the first restrikes of 1858 sold to collectors, and 3) the questionable second restrikes of 1860.

Most collectors will be content with a single 1857 example, however there are several varieties of this date also to consider. These are the rare “Style of 1856” variety (with a squared O in OF and other diagnostics), and the so-called regular variety.  Other minor varieties also exist. These can be identified through specialized coin catalogs on the subject.  Proofs as well as Uncirculated business strikes exist.

The 1857 issue was struck following the Act of Feb. 21, 1857 authorizing Small Cents. Unlike the 1856 issue, that of 1857 is officially authorized.  The 1857 Flying Eagle Cents were very popular with the public and saved in large quantities. The coins were so popular, the Mint set up booths in the Mint yard to sell the coins to the public. The coin is available in many grades at reasonable prices. Clashed die specimens may be the result of night watchmen at the Mint illegally experimenting with coin dies (these same watchmen were responsible for some 1804 Silver Dollar restrikes).

There are two popular major varieties of the 1858 Flying Eagle Cent often collected alongside the 1856 and 1857 coins to complete a set. In fact, there are other minor varieties, but these are for the specialist.  The two major varieties, Large Letters and Small Letters, are reasonably easy to identify. The difference in the lettering in the AM of AMERICA is obvious.  As in 1857, there are Proof and business strikes of the date to be collected. There is also an important 1858/7 overdate rarity only discovered in recent years. This overdate is believed to be a refurbished 1857 die with the 8 added later. 

Like the Large Cent, the Small Cent was not legal tender, so it should have come as no surprise that it, too, would be rejected by bankers and merchants.

No one knows for certain why Snowden quickly changed from the Flying Eagle to the Indian Head design, but the difficulty of getting good strikes of the former may have been a factor. Collectors today will find a typical weakness on the eagle's tail feathers even on Mint State specimens and regardless of the date. Fully struck tail feathers are exceptions that often command significant premiums.