Flying Eagle Cents

America's first small-size cents

During the early years of the nation, 1¢ coins were struck in pure copper and larger than a quarter. But as the buying power of a penny diminished, these large, hefty coins became unpopular to carry around – and were often not even accepted at face value. By the 1850s, the price of copper had risen until it cost more than one cent to make a 1¢ coin. The Mint was losing money, and it was time for smaller, less expensive coins...

A change in composition and dramatic reduction in size

Several copper-nickel-zinc and copper-nickel alloys were tried in various sizes. But some of the "coins" looked too much like silver, or looked too much like tin or zinc which created counterfeiting concerns, or were too difficult to strike because of the hardness of nickel. Finally, in early 1856, US Mint Director James R. Snowden decided on an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel. He had 50 half cents struck on coin blanks of this new alloy, which he gave to his congressional friends who pushed through a bill to authorize new "small cent" coinage.

Featuring a "flying eagle" and wreath design

The first small-size cents were designed by James B. Longacre, whose obverse image of a flying eagle was based on Christian Gobrecht's design for the reverse of 1838-1839 US silver dollars. The reverse features an agricultural wreath of corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco surrounding the inscription one cent. The same wreath had been used previously by Longacre on US $1 and $3 gold pieces.

Pattern pieces are struck in 1856

Over 600 pattern "Flying Eagle cents" were struck in 1856 for presentation to Treasury officials, senators, representatives and other VIPs for their evaluation. Hundreds more were made, reflected in the official Guide Book of United States Coins estimated mintage of 2,000. As America's first small cents, with very limited mintage, the 1856 Flying Eagles are in great demand among collectors.

Struck for circulation only in 1857 and 1858

Flying Eagle cents, with an obverse design far removed from a usual image of Liberty, were produced for circulation only during 1857 and 1858. However, the second year of mintage produced 3 prominent varieties. The 1858 Large Letters type bears a large united states of america inscription and the a and m in america are joined, while the harder-to-find 1858 Small Letters variety has a smaller inscription and the a and m in america are separated. The scarce 1858, 8 Over 7 Flying Eagle cents were created when dies dated 1857 were changed to 1858 by grinding down the 7 and punching an 8 over that spot.

Weakness of strike brings a change in design

While the Flying Eagle motif was pleasing when freshly minted, the details of the eagle's head, tail and wing tips, as well as parts of the wreath directly opposite these areas, wore down quickly in circulation. So Mint Director Snowden directed James Longacre to prepare other designs for the cent, including his acclaimed "Indian Head" motif which debuted in 1859 and endured for 50 years. The 1856-1858 Flying Eagles, though very short-lived, are now scarce and sought-after collectibles as America's first small cents. Please see Littleton's handy checklist for Flying Eagle cents for your collecting convenience.