The Flying Eagle cent is one of the shortest-lived
series of United States coins, having been produced for circulation
only in 1857 and 1858.
There is also the pattern produced
in 1856, which also saw limited circulation.
large cents and half cents had grown increasingly unpopular, forcing
the Mint to research other compositional alternatives. Many banks and
stores refused the coins as too ugly and too heavy. The coins were not
legal tender then, although they are now.
Also, by the
early 1850s, it was costing the Mint more to produce the copper cents
than their face value. Something had to be done. Nearly 20 years
earlier, eccentric New York City dentist Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger
unsuccessfully peddled to the U.S. Mint his alloy of "American
silver" – copper, nickel, zinc, tin, antimony and other trace
In 1850, the Mint was notified of a congressional
proposal for ring-shaped cents of billon – 90 percent silver, 10
percent copper – but the annular cent proposition stalled. At the same
time, nickel mine magnate Joseph Wharton pushed the use of his
monopolized metal to solve the coinage crisis.
technicians unsuccessfully conducted experiments using various
combinations of copper and nickel, with and without being alloyed to
In early 1856, Mint Director James
Ross Snowden, one of Wharton's cronies, eventually settled on a new
cent sized 32 percent smaller than the Coronet cent produced from 1816
to 1857. The small cent would be struck in an alloy of 88 percent
copper and 12 percent nickel.
The nickel was added to
produce a cleaner, more rugged coin that would withstand long
circulation. The white metal was also added to increase the intrinsic
value of the coin so it would be accepted by a skeptical public. The
difficulty in obtaining the metal was also seen as a deterrent to
For the obverse, Snowden approved the
modification of Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht's Flying Eagle motif,
and for the reverse, Engraver James B. Longacre's wreath, originally
used in 1854 for the $3 and $1 gold coins.
pattern cents quickly became the prize possessions of hoarders.
For circulation, the new cents were struck in unprecedented
quantities – 17.45 million business strikes dated 1857 and 24.6
million dated 1858 – in order to redeem the old copper cents as well
as demonetized fractional foreign silver pieces.
Flying Eagle cents are actually patterns, but a small quantity of
non-Proof specimens were placed into circulation, possibly the
following year. It is believed some 1,400 Proofs and restrikes were
produced in all. Despite the extremely low mintage, it is considered
common among patterns, since most patterns number 30 specimens or
Beware of 1856 alterations. On all genuine pieces,
the upright of the 5 connects with the center of the knob, and, on the
great majority of these, the e in one and cent on the reverse are
closed by large connecting serifs.
The year 1858, with
24.6 million cents struck, also produced at least three major
varieties. Collectors can look for the 1858 Large Letters variety,
where the letters in the legends and mottoes are significantly larger
and thicker than those on the 1858 Small Letters variety. There is
also an overdate for the year, an 1858/7.
At first, the
cents were well accepted, then blasphemed as a non-legal tender
annoyance. The Flying Eagle cents designed by Mint Engravers Christian
Gobrecht and James B. Longacre subsequently flew out of circulation as
fast as they had flown in.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: