Flying Eagle Cents 1856-1858 Coin Guide
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Flying Eagle Cents 1856-1858
By the mid-1850s it was apparent to Mint officials that the large
copper cents struck since 1793 were too cumbersome and unpopular, as well
as increasingly uneconomical to make. The idea of fiduciary coinage, based
on the trustworthiness of the issuing authority, not on the coin's
intrinsic value, was beginning to catch on as well. Sooner or later the
"big coppers" would have gone the way of the dinosaur, but it
was the large numbers of small Spanish colonial silver coins in use
throughout the United States that finally made it imperative that smaller
cents had to be struck, and not necessarily of pure copper.
It was Mint Director James R. Snowden's desire to see all foreign coins
driven out of the channels of commerce in the United States. The coinage
law passed by Congress on February 21, 1857 gave him the means to do so.
In addition to abolishing the half cent, the law also specified that the
new cents would weigh 72 grains and be composed of 88% copper and 12%
nickel. Furthermore, they were redeemable for the old copper cents and
half cents. But the most important provision as far as Snowden was
concerned was the one that permitted the Mint and the Treasury Department
to redeem Spanish double-reales, reales and medios at the rate of 25,
12-1/2, and 6-1/4 cents, respectively, for the new cents. All other
government offices would only convert these three denominations at the
rate of 20, 10, and 5 cents. With such a powerful profit motive, banks
were very desirous of exchanging as many of the foreign silver coins as
possible for the new "nicks," as the Flying Eagle cents were
When the Flying Eagle cents were first released on May 25, 1857, more
than a thousand people wound around the mint building to convert their old
Spanish coins and large coppers. Within the mint's courtyard was erected a
temporary, wooden structure with two teller windows. Above each window was
a sign reading, respectively, "cents for cents" and "cents
for silver." The Philadelphia Bulletin described the scene:
"Every man and boy in the crowd had his package of coin with him.
Some had their rouleaux of Spanish coin done up in bits of newspaper or
wrapped in handerchiefs, while others had carpet bags, baskets and other
carrying contrivances, filled with coppers-'very cheap and filling,' like
boarding house fare."
A secondary market for the small cents developed immediately, some
people even paying a premium right on the grounds of the mint building
itself. Soon enough, though, the "nicks" became commonplace and.
by 1859 when the Indian cent design was introduced, the Mint had struck a
total of 42,050,000 cents with the Flying Eagle design, more than enough
for anyone who wished to have multiple examples. Snowden was successful in
driving out the now-demonitized Spanish coins, and by 1859 it was
estimated that some $2 million worth of the foreign silver pieces had been
recoined into U.S. subsidiary coinage.
Designed by James B. Longacre, the Flying Eagle motif was actually an
adaptation of the design used on pattern silver dollars twenty years
before. The eagle figure had originally been drawn by Titian Peale and
sculpted by Christian Gobrecht. The reverse wreath was similarly adapted
from the model Longacre had made for the 1854 one and three dollar gold
As with a number of other Longacre designs, the relief was too high.
This caused problems on fully struck coins-they would not stack
properly-and on less than perfectly produced pieces it created problems
associated with die opposition, that is, either the eagle's head and tail
did not strike up fully on the obverse or the wreath was ill-defined on
the reverse. On coins dated 1857, weak reverse definition is especially
Flying Eagle cents have proved enormously popular over the decades,
beginning with the pattern issue of 1856. It is unclear exactly how many
1856 cents were struck, but the best estimates fall in the range of 800 to
as many as 1,500 pieces. Both proofs and business strikes were made, as
well as originals and restrikes. All are valuable and have been
extensively hoarded over the years, the most famous hoard of which came
from the estate of Colonel John A. Beck, who at one time owned 531 pieces.
The 1856 Flying Eagle cent is one of the few American coins whose value
is greater than its rarity. Worth more than $2,000 in Good condition, the
1856 cent has a value and interest to collectors of U.S. coinage that goes
far beyond the more limited scope of "penny" collectors. Why?
The only reasonable answer seems to be: because they always have been
valuable. Even in the late 1850s, 1856 cents were worth a dollar or two
depending on condition.
Collectors of Flying Eagle cents have several ways to collect these
coins. A complete date and variety set is possible and consists of only
five issues: 1856, 1857, 1858 Small Letters, 1858 Large Letters and
1858/7. These coins are often collected in conjunction with the Indian
Head series. Type collectors generally stick to the 1857 or one of the two
1858 issues. More advanced numismatists often assemble sets of the pattern
coinage of this design. Proofs are extremely rare, except in the case of
the 1856, and probably less than a total of 100 proofs exist of the three
issues from 1857 and 1858.
Grading Flying Eagles can be somewhat tricky due to the above-mentioned
weakness of strike encountered on many examples. The points of the design
to show wear first are the eagle's breast and wingtips on the obverse and
the bow on the reverse. With mint state coins that are weakly struck on
the head or tail of the eagle or on the reverse wreath, it is imperative
that mint luster be present on all areas of the design.
Flying Eagle cents have been extensively counterfeited. Fakes have been
made by altering digits in the date, false dies have been produced to
strike phonies and spark erosion dies have been used. When in doubt or
when purchasing a high priced Flying Eagle cent, it is always best to have
the coin's authenticity expertly verified.
It was Longacre's inability to engrave dies properly that led to the
early demise of the series. A new design was needed where die opposition
would not be a problem as it had been between the eagle on the obverse and
the wreath on the reverse. It was this need that led Longacre to redesign
the small cent for 1859, replacing the flying eagle motif with an Indian
head. The original small cent design, however, gave collectors of 19th
century U.S. coins a short, yet challenging series that continues to
intrigue numismatists more than a century later.
Diameter: 19 millimeters. Weight: 4.67 grams Composition: .880 copper,
.120 nickel Edge: Plain
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bowers, Q. David, A Buyer's and
Enthusiast's Guide to Flying Eagle and Indian Cents, Bowers & Merena
Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1996. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Encyclopedia
of U.S. and Colonial Proof Coins 1722-1977, F.C.I. Press, Albertson, NY,
1977. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U. S. and
Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Carothers, Neil,
Fractional Money, A History of the Small Coins and Fractional Paper
Currency of the United States, John Wiley & Sons, London, 1930. Snow,
Richard, Flying Eagle and Indian Cents, Eagle Eye Press, 1992. Steve,
Larry R. & Flynn, Kevin J., Flying Eagle and Indian Cent Die
Varieties, Nuvista Press, Jarrettsville, MD, 1995. Taxay, Don, The U.S.
Mint and Coinage, Arco Publishing, New York, 1966.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.