By the early 1850s copper availability was limited, and the price of the raw metal rose to the point that the Mint lost money on every cent that was made. At the same time the large copper cents had become increasingly unpopular with the public, which thought the coins unattractive, too heavy, and too prone to collect dirt. To address the situation Congress passed a coinage law in 1857 that specified a smaller cent, composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel, based on trial half cents produced in that composition by Mint Director James Snowden in 1856. The same law provided for redemption of the older cents, the now abolished half cent, and Spanish/ Mexican coins that up to that time freely circulated in commerce, all exchangeable for the new cents. First produced as a pattern in 1856, in advance of the authorizing law, production of the coins for distribution began in 1857. The redemption system proved to be popular, producing long lines at the Mint in May, 1857, as people eagerly traded the old coins for the new smaller cent. Though today we consider Flying Eagles to be copper coins, at the time they were called “nicks” in reference to their nickel content. The short-lived series ended most likely because of striking problems due to the too-high relief of Longacre’s design, with the eagle’s head and tail opposite strong wreath details on the reverse. In 1859 the Flying Eagle cent was replaced by the Indian cent.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Designed by James B. Longacre, both obverse and reverse layouts were adapted from previously used motifs. The left facing, wings outstretched in-flight eagle on the obverse is from Christian Gobrecht’s 1836 Liberty Seated obverse. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles inside the dentilled rim around the top two-thirds of the coin, with the eagle’s right wing tip separating OF and AMERICA. The date is centered at the bottom. An intricate plant wreath consisting of various leaves and seed heads of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco, bound at the bottom with a ribbon, is placed inside a dentilled rim on the reverse. The wreath design was previously used by Longacre on the 1854 gold one dollar and gold three dollar coins. In the center is the two-line ONE CENT text. All coins were minted at Philadelphia, and no mintmarks are displayed on the coins.
Flying Eagle cents were produced only for three years but the first year 1856 coins, considered patterns, were not distributed for public use but instead to Treasury officials, Congressional representatives, and other VIPs. Most of the 1856 coins were struck as proofs, and though some are mislabeled as Mint State, true Mint State examples for the year do exist. Coins for this first year date were restruck in 1858 and 1859 using the original dies, so the total number produced is not accurately known though generally estimated at fewer than 2,000 coins. All 1856-dated coins are more expensive than coins dated 1857 and 1858 for both business strikes and proofs. Business strike coins for the last two years are generally affordable, with prices jumping at Gem and above, but proofs are expensive at all grades. Prooflike business strikes have been certified, as have cameo and deep cameo proofs. Keys coins for the series are the 1856 dates and an 1858/7 overdate; all proofs are scarce to rare.
Designer: James B. Longacre
Circulation Mintage: high 24,600,000 (1858), low 750 (1856, estimated)
Proof Mintage: high 1,500 (1856, estimated), low 160-200 (1858, estimated)
Denomintion: $0.01 One cents (01/100)
Diameter: ±19 mm, plain edge
Metal content: 88% copper, 12% nickel
Weight: ±4.67 grams
Varieties: The three best-known varieties are the 1858/7 overdate and large letter 1858 and the small letter 1858 versions. Several additional varieties are also known in this popular and extensively studied series, and include die doubling, clashing, and other minor die variations.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, Richard E. Snow
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.