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 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
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
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 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
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.