The Flying Eagle Cent: The Start of Something Small in U.S. Coinage
BY ED REITER
When people hold yard sales today, they do so to get rid of old possessions – furniture, clothing, appliances, knickknacks, and other odds and ends.
When Uncle Sam held a very special yard sale in 1857, he did it as a way of introducing something new: the first small-size cent in the nation’s history.
The coin in question was the Flying Eagle cent, one of the shortest-lived of all U.S. coins, yet one of the most important, from the standpoint of its impact on the money in Americans’ pockets and purses.
Actually, Uncle Sam was getting rid of something old on that spring day in 1857 when the "yard sale" took place at the Philadelphia Mint. Rather than selling it, though, he was retiring it – for that sale also served as a kind of going-away party for the pure copper coin we call the "large cent."
Early Americans knew it as just the cent; it didn’t become the "large cent" until there was a small cent with which to contrast it – much as World War I was simply the World War (or sometimes the Great War) until the outbreak of World War II.
Many collectors cherish large cents today as symbols of the nation’s formative years; their warm copper color and quaint, unpretentious portraits conjure images of a simpler, less hectic time and place. By the middle of the 19th century, though, they had worn out their welcome with a large and growing segment of the populace – and worn out the linings of many Americans’ pockets.
The large cent was large by design. The Founding Fathers wanted U.S. coins to have high intrinsic value, reasoning that this would create public confidence and ensure ready acceptance in daily commerce. With that in mind, Congress supersized the cent along with everything else: The very first cents in 1793 were 26 to 27 millimeters in diameter and contained 13.48 grams of pure copper, making them almost as big as the present-day half dollar and nearly 20 percent heavier.
Those first cents, it soon turned out, had too much intrinsic value. By 1795, it was costing the government more than a cent apiece to make the hefty coins, so their weight was reduced to 10.89 grams, where it would remain for the rest of the series. Even this, however, was literally too big for many Americans’ britches.
Far from appreciating the high intrinsic value of early coppers, people came to view them as bulky and inconvenient. They also disliked the tendency of the coins – being unalloyed copper – to blacken and turn foul with circulation. On top of everything else, by the mid-1800s the Mint was growing concerned that even in slenderized form, the coins might become too costly to produce as the price of copper rose.
In the early 1850s, the Mint began conducting tests with alternative metals and sizes. It even produced pattern cents made of debased silver, with large holes in the center – the idea being to reduce the amount of metal without any sacrifice in circumference.
At first, the Mint tried to keep the intrinsic value meaningful, though low enough to discourage would-be melters – reflecting the concern that without such metal value, a new cent would be spurned by the public. But after a series of fits and starts, Mint Director James Ross Snowden began having second thoughts about this conventional wisdom.
Snowden reasoned that while intrinsic value undoubtedly was important with coins made of gold and silver, minor coins – including cents – enjoyed acceptance primarily because they were government issues, and didn’t need metal value to reinforce it.
This new philosophy gave the Mint more options, and by 1856 it had come up with a solution: a much smaller cent made from an alloy of 88-percent copper and 12-percent nickel. Since its obverse portrayed an eagle in flight, this novel coin came to be known as the Flying Eagle cent.
The new, smaller cent was designed by James Barton Longacre, the Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver. Longacre had held this post since 1844 and had been a busy man. Coins in four new denominations had debuted since his arrival, and he had designed them all: the gold dollar, double eagle ($20 gold piece), $3 gold piece and silver three-cent piece. In addition, he had been immersed in preparing the numerous pattern coins made during those years at the Philadelphia Mint.
Prior to joining the Mint, Longacre had gained a reputation primarily as a portrait artist and engraver, rather than a die-sinker. He knew enough, however – and learned enough on the job – to become the designer of more new U.S. coins than anyone else in history. By the time he died in office in 1869, he had supplemented those already mentioned with the Indian Head cent, the two-cent piece, the nickel three-cent piece, and the Shield nickel.
While the quantity is imposing, the quality of Longacre’s work hasn’t always impressed coinage critics. Consider this comment by Cornelius Vermeule in the widely admired book Numismatic Art in America:
"Uniform in their dullness, lack of inspiration, and even quaintness, Longacre’s contributions to patterns and regular coinages were a decided step backward from the art of Sully, Peale, Hughes, and Gobrecht."
Vermeule went on to say:
"Much has been written about Longacre’s inability to prepare master dies. Whatever his previous qualities as an engraver of portraits, he seems not to have brought much imagination to his important post at the Philadelphia Mint. Since portraits were not demanded for the coinage, perhaps he was at a loss how to create new designs within the allegorical repertory of American numismatic art. Certainly the coins he did design seem to bear this out."
A case can be made that of all the coins Longacre designed, the Flying Eagle cent is among the most appealing artistically. Then again, the eagle – the coin’s most prominent feature – isn’t really original. Longacre clearly borrowed it from the Gobrecht dollar, the magnificent silver dollar prepared two decades earlier by his predecessor, Christian Gobrecht. And Gobrecht, in turn, had based the design on a sketch by famed artist Titian Peale.
The cent’s reverse, like much of Longacre’s coinage "art," might be described as functional, rather than aesthetic. It bears the inscription ONE CENT within a wreath. And like a number of other Longacre wreaths, it’s made up of corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco – four staples of U.S. agriculture – instead of the more traditional but less American laurel. This feature has been described as a "cornucopia wreath," and even author Vermeule found it appealing.
"Longacre loved to design wreaths," Vermeule observed, "and his drawings show how often he turned his eye to their delights."
Congress didn’t authorize the Flying Eagle cent until Feb. 21, 1857, but the coin had already appeared in what would prove to be its most famous – and most valuable – incarnation. The Mint had struck examples dated 1856 and distributed them to members of Congress as part of its effort to win support for the change by demonstrating how the coin would look.
It’s estimated that the Mint produced between 1,000 and 2,000 specimens dated 1856, many of them restrikes. Technically, these are patterns because they predate legislative approval for the coin. But the 1856 Flying Eagle cent is widely collected as part of the series, and is highly coveted not only as the first small cent in U.S. history but also as one of the rarest and most valuable.
"Small" is a relative term. Although it was far smaller than previous U.S. cents, the Flying Eagle cent was actually rather large in relation to its present-day counterpart. It had the same diameter as the current Lincoln cent, but it weighed nearly twice as much – 4.67 grams, compared with the present 2.5 grams. (The cent was further reduced to about its present weight in 1864.) The new coin also was lighter in color, leading some to call it a "white" cent (although it was really whitish tan).
The new cent’s release became a festive event, marked by the kind of hoopla witnessed today when statehood Washington quarters or Lewis and Clark nickels are unveiled. In this case, the event took the form of that yard sale – or, viewed another way, a "one-cent sale." On May 25, 1857, the day of the coin’s introduction, federal officials literally set up shop to sell it in the yard outside the Philadelphia Mint.
Expecting (and hoping for) heavy demand, the government erected a temporary wooden building with two separate windows – one labeled "Cents for Cents," the other "Cents for Silver." People arriving with large cents or silver coins were directed to the appropriate window, where weighers and clerks were standing by, ready to give them $5 canvas sacks of Flying Eagle cents in exchange.
Thousands of eager buyers milled around the yard, like vacationers in queues for popular Disneyland rides. They had to pay full price for the newly minted coins, but that was a bargain: Within a matter of minutes, many resold the coins at a very healthy profit to other Philadelphians taken with the novelty of the lustrous little cents.
The scene had a circus-like quality.
"The invading throng was arranged into lines," according to a report in the Philadelphia Bulletin. "These lines soon grew to an unconscionable length, and to economize space they wound around and around like the convolutions of a snake of a whimsical turn of mind.
"The clerks and the weighers exerted themselves to the utmost to meet the demands of all comers, and to deal out the little canvas bags to all who were entitled to receive them; but the crowd grew apace, and we estimated that at one time there could not have been less than one thousand persons in the zigzag lines, weighed down with small change, and waiting patiently for their turn."
By the end of the day, the Mint had nearly exhausted its entire inventory of 3 million coins – $30,000 worth of shiny new Flying Eagle cents. All of them were dated 1857.
Although this initial box-office success seemed to stamp the new coin as a hit, the Flying Eagle cent was destined to have a very short run. After being issued for only two years, 1857 and 1858, it gave way to the Indian Head cent.
Mint Director Snowden had never been fully satisfied with the Flying Eagle coin. For one thing, it presented technical problems. High points on one side didn’t always correspond to low points on the other, and this – plus the hardness of the nickel in the alloy – resulted in numerous weakly struck coins. Snowden also saw room for improvement in the artistry of the design.
The director sent Longacre back to the drawing board, where he came up with more than a dozen prospective new designs. Snowden suggested at one point that Christopher Columbus might be an appropriate subject, but Longacre balked at this idea. It was "entitled to consideration," he said, perhaps out of deference to his boss, but it surely would be subject to criticism – for "how can it be relieved of any of the objections that have theretofore prevailed against the introduction of the head of [George] Washington upon the coinage of the United States?"
The chief engraver settled on a portrait of a girl – ostensibly an Indian, but more likely a Caucasian (some have even suggested his daughter Sara) wearing a feathered headdress. This design replaced the flying eagle with the start of cent production in 1859. The reverse, which was also redone, featured a simple wreath around the words ONE CENT.
The Mint struck 17.5 million Flying Eagle cents in 1857 and 24.6 million in 1858. Collectors got a bonus in 1858, when cents came in two distinct kinds – one with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in small letters and one with large lettering. While interesting, both of these are relatively common.
While its flight was exceptionally short, the Flying Eagle’s shadow has been long. This simple little coin got small-size U.S. cents off the ground – and they have been flying high ever since.