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The Flying Eagle Cents

By R.W. Julian


In the early 1970s there was concern over the rising price of copper and what would happen to the Lincoln cent. Patterns in aluminum were struck and furnished to a number of people, including Congressmen, and there was a major uproar when several pieces were "lost" and could not be recovered. Some of these aluminum cents of 1974 are surely by now secretly gracing collections in this country. In the 1850s, however, the Mint had different ideas about patterns and to see how it was done in those days, we must go back more than 200 years . . .

The large cent was first struck in late February 1793 but even before coinage began there were problems. In 1792 the law had set the weight at 264 grains but the rising price of copper forced a change in January 1793 to 208 grains. As if this were not enough, another round of price increases in the fall of 1795 caused President Washington to order the weight reduced to 168 grains at year's end.

Even though the Mint made a profit from copper coinage, the gradually rising price of copper over the decades caused uneasiness. As early as 1837 Lewis Feuchtwanger produced some one and three-cent pieces made from German Silver (a combination of copper, nickel, and zinc), suggesting to Congress and the Mint that his composition be used for the minor coinage. He failed, but did leave an idea that would later bear fruit.

There was an added difficulty to the old copper cents. They became foul and dirty and were so cumbersome as to be disliked by consumer and storekeeper alike. In addition they had no legal tender status and merchants frequently had to sell large accumulations at a discount to brokers.

When the weight of the cent was set at 168 grains in December 1795, this meant that 41 2/3 pieces equaled one avoirdupois pound. Whenever the price of ready-made copper planchets (nearly all of the cent and half cent planchets after 1837 were made by Crocker Brothers of Taunton, Massachusetts) reached 40 cents per pound, the Mint began to lose money because manufacturing and distribution costs had to be added on. By 1849 profits from copper coinage had dropped so low that Congress was alarmed and asked for an investigation into billon (less than half silver) coinage. The result was the pattern Ring cents of 1850-51, in which there was a central hole, reminiscent of Chinese cash. Mint officials decided against the Ring cent principally because of technical problems; the answer had to be sought elsewhere.

Little was done during the latter part of 1851 and early 1852 since prices had dropped slightly, but during the spring of 1852 the price of copper planchets rose to forty cents per pound. During 1852 and 1853 it was to remain at this level and even reached 42 cents on one occasion. Every cent issued by the Mint during this latter time involved an immediate loss to the government.

The price rise of 1852 provoked fresh discussions. By early in 1853 Feuchtwanger's old ideas had been dusted off and brought up to date. Melter & Refiner James Booth investigated varying combinations of German Silver to find the one most suitable for coinage. By mid-1853 Booth was convinced that German Silver was the answer and asked Mint Director James Ross Snowden for permission to test his idea. Quarter-eagle sized patterns were then struck in the fall of 1853 but failed to impress Mint officials. During 1854 and 1855 confusion reigned supreme at the Mint as first one idea was tried then another. One school of thought suggested reducing the weight and size of the copper cent and thus not change the metal at all, merely the intrinsic value. Another avenue pushed for some combination of German Silver or the new idea of copper-nickel. A third school thought that bronze was the answer. Patterns were struck to illustrate the suggestions. Most of the trial pieces are of little interest but one was to have lasting impact when Snowden ordered that a flying eagle be used on one obverse die. This eagle was a combination of the ones found on the reverse of the Gobrecht dollar of 1836-39 and a pattern executed by Engraver William Kneass in 1838.

The Flying Eagle pattern cents of 1854-1855 were about the size of a quarter dollar and numerous pieces illustrating different metallic compositions were struck from these dies. The specimens were then carefully examined in an effort to forge a consensus on what exactly ought to be done. Unfortunately, different opinions were still the order of the day. In the spring of 1856 Melter & Refiner Booth finally hit upon the combination of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel as the ideal metal. Booth persuaded Director Snowden that this new copper-nickel alloy was what they had been looking for and Snowden, in the summer of that year, agreed. Booth further suggested that the new coins be struck at the rate of 80 pieces to the Troy pound (each to weigh 72 grains), producing a large profit for the government; they were to be small and rather thick so as not to be confused with silver coins.

Booth noted that it had always been government policy to strike cents and half cents close to intrinsic value, but still far enough away to create a reasonable profit for the government. However, Booth knew that it was really the government stamp on the coin which caused it to circulate. There had been virtually no counterfeits of the large cents and the relative hardness of nickel was believed a sufficient deterrent to counterfeiting. Snowden thought so well of the idea that on July 11, 1856, he formally recommended Booth's proposal to Treasury Secretary James Guthrie. Half cent dies (much larger than the proposed coin) were used to strike a few patterns as a temporary measure.

Officialdom in Washington now considered the subject, and Snowden was given the green light to proceed. Snowden in turn instructed Engraver James Longacre to produce dies for a coin three-quarters of an inch in diameter (19mm). Longacre made a new flying eagle, in lower relief than the one on the larger patterns of 1854-55, and much closer to the Gobrecht eagle of 1836.

Longacre did not spend a great deal of time on the reverse wreath as he simply adapted the one already in use on the three-dollar gold piece of 1854. The engraver was a careful craftsman (i.e. slow) and it was not until early November that the dies were finally ready. Snowden was aware that the finished pattern designs would be very important in persuading Congress to alter the law in favor of the new copper-nickel coins. For this reason he urged Longacre to make due speed but did not pressure him all that much. The melter & refiner prepared planchets specifically for the new dies and tests were carried out to learn all that could be gathered from the pattern pieces. By late November all was in readiness and several hundred copper-nickel cents, all bearing the 1856 date, were struck under Snowden's direct orders. A bill was introduced into Congress authorizing the coinage of copper-nickel cents on the new standard.

Director Snowden now distributed the pattern 1856 Flying Eagle cents to just about anybody with influence. It is believed that virtually every Representative and Senator received one (and were not asked to return them!) as well as Treasury officials. Influential reporters and bankers also obtained their share.

Walter Breen has estimated that around 800 uncirculated 1856 Flying Eagle cents were made during the winter of 1856-57. This many pattern coins being given out certainly gained a wide circulation and did prove a key factor in the enactment of the bill into law on February 21, 1857. Snowden had won his battle for the copper-nickel cent.

Once the law was signed, Snowden ordered prompt preparations for coinage. The last of the old cents and half cents were struck in January 1857 and coinage of the new Flying Eagle copper-nickel cents began in April. A large number were stockpiled and on May 25 the first public distribution was made. The February law had stipulated that the new cent coins could be exchanged for old coppers or Spanish silver coins.

A crowd assembled for the opening day of distribution and two long lines (one for silver exchange, the other for copper) formed in the Mint courtyard and outside as well. One had to exchange at least five dollars worth of coins and the Mint had made up little sacks of cents containing 500 pieces. There was so much demand for these new coins, instantly dubbed "nicks," that those at the end of the line were willing to pay two or three cents for one of them.

Mint presses struck the new coins at the rate of 100,000 per day for months as the demand seemed endless. Both merchants and public were glad to be rid of the cumbersome copper coins; within a few months the bulk of transactions requiring small coins were in the form of Flying Eagle cents. Many of the pattern 1856s went into circulation at this time; there was no organized body of collectors searching for such pieces yet and quite a few were simply spent.

By 1858 so many of the new Flying Eagle "nickels," as they were now called, had gone into the marketplace that merchants were beginning to complain. There was still no legal tender status and brokers were once again buying cents at a discount, yet coinage was even heavier in 1858. Many citizens took a perverse delight in paying small sums entirely with "nickels," much to the annoyance of those on the receiving end.

Snowden attempted to solve the problem of a growing unpopularity of the "nickels" by changing to the Indian Head design in 1859 but it was only the Civil War which put an end to the problem of too many cents around. Opponents of nickel coinage even spread rumors that these coins were dangerous to children who swallowed them since nickel was such a "poisonous" metal. (Opponents also spread rumors about nickel being an evil metal because the word "nickel" derived from Old Nick, another name for the Devil.)

In the meantime, the end of the old large cent had an unexpected by-product when many ordinary people began putting together date sets of the large cents. A few enterprising collectors even persuaded Director Snowden to be allowed the pleasant privilege of going through the copper cents and half cents brought to the Mint in exchange for the new coins. Coin collecting grew rapidly 1857 and 1858 and by early in 1859 there were several thousand collectors in the country.

These new collectors also concentrated on the Flying Eagle cents. They soon discovered the 1856 patterns and hunted everywhere to find one. More than any other single coin, the 1856 Flying Eagle cent sustained the newly-discovered hobby of coin collecting. The 800 or so made during the winter of 1856-57 were not enough to go around, however, since many had been spent and others already in collections.

Snowden seized the opportunity and restruck a fair number of the 1856s, but this time mostly in proof. The number made is unknown, but Breen estimated that at least 1,200 were made, giving a minimum number of 1856s at 2,000 overall. Snowden sold and traded the 1856s; the profits were put into a special fund to buy coins and medals for the national collection kept at the Mint.

The restriking of 1856 Flying Eagle cents gave Snowden fresh ideas and within a short time other coins, including Gobrecht dollars of the 1830s, were restruck in quantity. The whole thing got out of hand, however, when a Mint employee obtained the dies, restruck rare patterns and coins, and went into competition with Snowden. He pocketed the profits and collectors began to get wise to the whole business. Restriking stopped in 1860. Present-day collectors are just as avid about the 1856 Flying Eagle cent and it is the only pattern coin usually collected as a necessary part of a complete cent collection. In VF-20 it is worth about $5250 while in uncirculated the collector should expect to pay at least $7000 for a decent specimen. Proof pieces in superb condition (Proof-65) are worth in excess of $20,000.

The regular issues of the period may be obtained for much less. An 1852 large cent, for example, is worth about $18 in very fine and can be obtained with ease. The Flying Eagle cent of 1857 is valued at about $33 in very fine, roughly the same as 1858; there are quite a few around but type collectors require either 1857 or 1858, driving up the price somewhat.

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