PCGS 2010 - Flying Eagle Cent (1856-1858)
Navigate by PCGS number: Flying Eagle Cent (1856-1858)
The change from a large copper cent to a small copper nickel alloy was the biggest change the coinage had gone through in United States history. In addition to changing the composition of the cent and eliminating the copper cent and half-cent, the foreign silver coins which were predominant in circulation were to be removed from circulation.
The idea of a "nickel" Cent was first proposed by Dr. Lewis Feuchtwanger, who devoted a significant amount of time attempting to convince the mint in using his own composition of German Silver (copper, nickel and zinc). The coin was lightweight and durable and silvery in appearance. The Mint decided not to pursue the alloy on the negative report by Prof. James C. Booth, then at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The rejection did not stop Feuchtwanger as he produced his own tokens with the declared value of once cent. Feuchtwanger's cents circulated along other private tokens during a time when federal cents were not often seen in circulation due to the depression or "Hard Times" of 1837-1844.
The California and Australian gold discoveries in 1848-1855 made gold cheaper in relation to other commodities, such as silver and copper. In terms of gold, these prices rose significantly, beginning in 1850. It was clear than the cost of obtaining copper for cents and half cents would be prohibitive in a shot time. The Mint experimented with a smaller sized cent with several designs and metal combinations, including billion (copper with 10% silver), German-Silver (Feuchtwanger's composition) and copper-nickel. In 1854 and 1855 patterns were made with a reduced size copper and bronze cent. These were 100 grains as opposed to the 175 grain weight currently in use.
in 1856, James C, Booth, now the Mint’s Melter and Refiner, determined that a mixture of 88 parts copper and 12 parts nickel with a weight of 72 grains would be an ideal metal for a new cent. The end result would be a coin that was small but thick so as to not be confused with silver denominations at the time including silver three-cent pieces, half-dimes and regular dimes. Mixed into the intrigue of the day was a section in the reduced-size cent bill to move the decision-making power on coinage issues to Congress. This pivoted Mint Director James R. Snowden to be firmly behind the copper-nickel cent bill, which also kept his decision-making power intact.
Prior to 1857, merchants had to contend with coinage that was absurdly complex. The most prevalent coins in circulation was the Spanish (Mexican) silver coins, mostly the 1/2 real (6 1/4 cents), real (12 1/2 cents), two real (25 cents). There were also coins from England, The Netherlands and anywhere else that regularly traded with the United States. It was seen that this was the opportune time to begin removing these coins from circulation. Included in Snowden's copper-nickel cent bill were sections to exchange the new cents for the foreign silver. Cents were to be exchanged on a dollar-per-dollar rate for silver. If you wanted federal silver in exchange for your foreign silver the ratio was 80% per dollar.
Finally, on July 11, 1856, Mint Director James Ross Sweden recommended the new style. The Mint’s Chief Engraver, James B. Longrace, was tasked with preparing new patterns with the new metal and size. The new design featured an eagle flying to the left. The eagle motif was inspired by the eagle used on the Gobrecht Dollar, a coin few average citizens had ever seen. For the reverse of the new cent Longrace choose to reuse a design he created for the $1 and $3 gold coin.
In late November of 1856, some pattern cents were struck for distribution to congressmen, newspaper editors and for anybody of influence. At least 634 example were distributed in this way. During this time, it was not uncommon for the mint to re-strike coins for collectors and consequently, sometime after 1856, additional 1856 pattern cents were produced in Proof format. During the Civil War many of these also reached circulation.
The new design was a hit and in 1857, The Coin Act of February 21, 1857, eliminated the large cent and authorized the production of the new cent. Finally, in April of 1857, production of the new cent began. They were stockpiled for several weeks until the official release date on May 25th, 1857. As was typical of the time, the public clamored for the new coin. The public traded in old large cents and other silver coins for the new cent. Due to demand, the Mint produced over 17 million cents, which far exceeded any previous mintage of the Large Cent.
Designed by James B. Longacre, the Flying Eagle motif was actually an adaptation of the Christian Gobrecht/Titian Peale design used on pattern dollars twenty years before.
The reverse wreath was similarly adapted from the model Longacre had made for the 1854 one and three dollar gold pieces.
- Weight: ±72 grains (±4.7 grams)
- Diameter: ±19 millimeters
- Composition: Copper - ±88%/Nickel - ±12%
- Edge: Plain
Flying Eagle cents are attributed by Snow numbers, from The Flying Eagle and Indian Cent Attribution Guide by Richard Snow. The 1856 die pairs have been charted to their emission sequence and original format can be found at the Flying Eagle and Indian Cent wiki site, 1856 maintained by Rick Snow and the Fly-In Club.
Prices realized from past auction lots. (PCGS Holder)
PCGS Price Guide 
- Breen, Walter H., Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U. S. and Colonial Coins, New York: Doubleday, 1987.
- Snow, Richard E., Flying Eagle and Indian Cents, Tucson, AZ: Eagle Eye Rare Coins, 1992.
- Snow, Richard E., The Flying Eagle and Indian Cent Attribution Guide, 2nd. edition. 1859-1869, Tucson, AZ: Eagle Eye Rare Coins, 2003.
- Snow, Richard E., A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, Atlanta, GA: Whitman Publishing, 2007.
- Yeoman, R. S., and Kenneth Bressett (ed.), A Guide Book of United States Coins, 59th Ed., Atlanta, GA: Whitman Publishing, 2005.
- U.S. Mint