First Small Cent Special for Many Reasons

from NUMISMATIC NEWS February 4,2003
Written by Paul M. Green

For the collector today a Flying Eagle cent collection might seem a bit short on total number of coins, but what it lacks in total numbers it makes up in terms of historical value. Whether considered an addition to an Indian Head cent collection, which is how Flying Eagle cents have frequently been collected, or as a series by themselves, Flying Eagle cents are well addition to anyone’s collection.

The Flying Eagle cent was an idea which was a long time in moving from idea to reality. It was a case where officials were simply unsure what to do about a couple problems they were facing with the large cent and half cent.

The first problem was an economic one. The metal value of the large cent had become roughly equal to its face value. At the time of the first large cent in 1793, memories of Continental Currency were still fresh in many minds, a fiasco that resulted i some people losing perhaps 90 percent or more of the face value of the notes. Officials probably correctly assumed that any new issues from the government had better be close to their face value in intrinsic worth.

The problem was that at a certain point the metal becomes more valuable than the face value and at an even lower point the government actually would lose money making large copper coins, when you consider shipping and labor among other things. Giving the public coins they would trust was one thing but losing money was another, and by the late1840s that was a potential problem.

The other problem with the old large cents was that they were not popular with the public. Merchants did not like them. Average citizens did not like carting them around. They were too heavy, and they became dirty quickly. As for half cents, they had a limited role in commerce by the mild-1800s, and the general belief was that they had little future.

The first idea was for a ring cent, somewhat like Chinese cash with a central hole. Interesting patterns were made, but the notion that they would be a technical problem ended that line of thinking. Also suggested was German silver, which was a combination of copper, nickel and zinc. There had even been patterns back in the 1830s of a cent and three-cent pieces, and additional patterns Were tried in 1853. Others simply thought that a reduction in size of the cent would be adequate.

It was an interesting period. Almost every official seemed to have some opinion as to the right alloy to use, and that resulted in a number of patterns. One pattern apparently suggested by Mint Director Janus Ross Snowden used an eagle flying, which was something of a composite of the reverse of the Gobrecht dollar of 1836-1839 and a half dollar pattern by William Kneass from 1838. At least the design was making some progress.

Finally, a fellow by the name of James Booth, who was the Mint’s melter and refiner, came up with a metal mixture of 12 percent nickel, 88 percent copper, which he felt was, the sort of alloy they had been seeking. He also was brave enough to suggest it was not the intrinsic metal value which would make the new cents circulate, but rather the backing of the government. Counterfeiting was an issue at the time, but there too the coins seemed unlikely to be targets.

It was a combination of advantages no one could resist and Mint Director Snowden convinced the Treasury secretary, who also apparently briefed President Franklin Pierce.

Chief Engraver James B. Longacre was ordered to prepare pattern dies for a coin, and he created a Flying Eagle design much closer to that of the Gobrecht dollar. Longacre was something of a champion of using designs more than once, and for the reverse he basically used the wreath on the $3 gold piece. Researchers are still unsure when the first Flying Eagle cent patterns were struck. In very late 1856 or early 1857, or perhaps both, several hundred 1856 Flying Eagle cents, still technically patterns, were struck.

The Mint Director had an idea what to do with the small supply of 1856 Flying Eagle cents. The idea was to pass them around official Washington to gain support for authorizing the new cents – something similar to what was done in 1974 when aluminum cents were passed out to officials for inspection, excepting that the aluminum cents were supposed to be returned. In 1856 the samples were simply given away, no request made that they be returned.

In fact, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent pattern giveaway worked, as on Feb. 21, 1857, a bill authorizing the new cents became law. With that, production could begin on a new era of smaller cents, and mintage of the small cents was begun in April.

One immediate change, other than size and composition, was that the new cents were to be made from planchets prepared by the Mint. Previously, planchets had been purchased from outside sources, most recently from a firm by the name of Crocker Brothers. Now, however, the Mint would be responsible for the planchets, and their ability was put to an immediate test.

It was decided to stockpile the new cents until May 25. That turned out to be a wise decision, but even then supplies were not really adequate. Under the terms of the law authorizing the new cents, the public was allowed to exchange old coppers as well as Spanish or Mexican silver, as at the time there was still a significant amount of foreign silver in circulation. Few could have imagined how popular the idea of trading old coppers and foreign silver would prove to be. Snowden phrased it well, writing the Treasury secretary regarding the first day of the new cent: “The demand for them is enormous.” On that day nearly three million of the new cents were released.

There were assorted humorous descriptions of the scene that day as people traded in their old copper or silver coins for bags of $5 of the new cents. So popular were the new cents that some at the end of the long lines were willing to pay a premium. As the Philadelphia Bulletin reported, “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 lots at an advance of thirty to a hundred per cent, and some of the outside purchasers even huckstered out the coin again in smaller lots at still heavier advance.”

The Philadelphia Bulletin went on to observe, “We doubt much 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 of ancient Spanish coins.”

Clearly the dislike of the public for the old coppers and Spanish and Mexican silver far outweighed any concern over whether the new cents had a face value that was nearly equal to their metal value.

At least some of the 1856 pattern strikes are believed to have been released at some point during the frenzy for the new cent. There was a solid base of coin collectors around Philadelphia back in 1857, and the appearance of some 1856 Flying Eagle cents caused a good deal of interest among them – a mad search was on for the rare date. We do not know how many were produced in.the initial group made from late 1856 to early 1857, but the best guess remains in the neighborhood of 800.

The estimates are complicated by the fact that those released had not been proofs, but with requests for 1856 cents appearing with regularity it appears that Snowden ordered a significant number of proofs to be struck, which were then either sold or traded to collectors for other items to improve the Mint’s collection of coins and medals. The idea of a small cent rarity encouraged many new collectors at the time. In a sense, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent was not unlike the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent or 1950-D Jefferson nickel of later generations. It was a rare coin worth a premiurn price, but not so rare that it was impossible to obtain. That is a perfect combination for encouraging interest.

The actual mintage of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is unknown. There were hundreds of business strikes, which as mentioned were really patterns, but some of their number were released into circulation while many others were presented to officials. Then there are the proofs, which also appear to be in the hundreds, some estimates going as high as 1,000 pieces. The estimates of the combined totals have ranged from perhaps as low as 1,400 to as many as 3,500 pieces.

The 1856 Flying Eagle cent remains popular today, pattern or not. Based on a current G-4 price of $5,500, up $1,500 since 1998, collectors have accepted it as a date to be included in their collections. This price in the lowest collectible grade is far more than would be expected of a coin viewed strictly as a pattern, especially a pattern with a mintage of more than 1,000 pieces. The fact that the 1856 Flying Eagle was the first small-size cent ever to be released gives it a certain historical importance which helps its price and its popularity.

The mintages of 1857 and 1858 were large. At first the attempt was simply to keep up with demand from the public. The 1857 total was 17,450,000. The 1858 total was 24,600,000, divided about equally between small-letter and large-letter varieties. In the large-letter variety, the “A” and “M” in AMERICA are connected, while on the small-letter variety they are clearly separated. While you would pay $5,500 for a G-4 1856, in the same grade these others are $18.50. There is an 1858/7 variety which in G-4 is $65.

In upper grades the 1856 is expensive. An MS-60 1856 is currently $8,600 up from $6,950 in 1998. In MS-65 it has jumped from a 1998 price of $21,000 to a current level of $57,000 while a Proof-65 is $24,500. It is worth noting that on genuine 1856 Flying Eagle cents the upright of the “5” connects with the center of the knob, and on most the letters “E” in the reverse legend are all closed by large connecting serifs.

In the case of the regular dates the 1857 is the least expensive in MS-60 at a current price of $280, while either variety of 1858 is $290. The 1858/7 is $2,500 in MS-60. In MS-65 the 1857 and 1858 of either variety are identical at a current price of $3,750 which is up a full $ 1,000 from 1998. The 1858/7 is listed at $75,000 in MS-65 and it is virtually unknown in this condition.
Despite its strong start, the Flying Eagle cent was gone by 1859. Production had managed to overtake the public demand and once again there were problems. The coins still had no legal tender status and there were so many of them circulating that people began to pay their bills entirely in Flying Eagle cents. Merchants were sometimes forced to use brokers simply to avoid
being flooded with the new coins. Complaints were once again being heard at the Mint.

Snowden tried to quiet things down by changing designs to the Indian Head cent in 1859, but what really solved the problem of too many cents was the outbreak of the Civil War and the coin hoarding and troubles which followed.

While the Flying Eagle cent is not a large collection, there is no disputing the fact that the Flying Eagle cent had a very important place in US. numismatic history. That is especially true of the 1856, which continues to be one of the most popular coins in history.

The Flying Eagle cent also deserves a special place in the numismatic history books because it, perhaps more than any other coin before it, encouraged coin collecting in the United States. It was not only a case of people looking for the 1856, although that was certainly a major part of the importance. In addition, the dramatic change in size caused many who were willing to stand in long lines simply to get rid of their old large coppers to begin collecting the vanishing large cents.

There is even some evidence that Snowden, who kept an eye on coin collecting, was convinced to let collectors go through some of the old large cents to fill their sets.
One way or another, the Flying Eagle cent had a serious and beneficial impact on coin collecting back in the time just prior to the Civil War. Based on its sharp price increases in recent years, it seems that many agree.