In the United States, the monetary system, during its early years, is a bit confusing to understand. The average person would have to contend with U.S. coinage, Spanish reales and medios, and British coinage in their everyday transactions. To add to the difficulty of everyday life, by the mid-1850s, many merchants and banks would no longer accept the half and large one-cent pieces, and those who did, would do so only at a discounted rate. Even though these two coin denominations were authorized by Congress, and had been in circulation since 1793, they were not legal tender. U.S. law stated that only the silver and gold coinage was consider legal tender. Not only were the large cent pieces too bulky, which made them unpopular commercially; they were becoming too expensive to make. It was costing the U.S. Mint $1.06 per 100 to manufacture, and with the rising cost of copper looming large on the horizon; it was time to make some changes.
Political sparing reared its head over these issues, and Mint Director James R. Snowden found himself in the middle of it. He wanted to see all foreign coins eliminated from commerce, the half-cent eliminated, and a newer, smaller cent to replace the old, obsolete large-cent. Of course, the lobbyists were making their presents know, and the most influential of all, was Joseph Wharton, the largest nickel mine owner in this hemisphere and longtime friend and neighbor of Mint Director Snowden.
In 1854, Snowden ordered Mint Engraver James B. Longacre to design a new, small one-cent coin. The obverse was a modification of the Flying Eagle motif that was utilized on the one-dollar coin engraved by Gobrecht (1836-1839). The reverse was a design Longacre had used on his $1 and $3 gold pieces, the American wreath. The American wreath is a design that combined the four major U.S. agriculture products of that time (corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco) with what looks to be maple leaves as accents. The coin was 19 mm in diameter with a plain edge, weighed 72 grains, and had a composition of 88% copper and 12% nickel.
Without official authorization or Congressional approval, Snowden ordered approximately 1000 Flying Eagle Cents struck in 1856. A little more then 640 of these were handed out to Treasury officials, Senators, Representatives, and VIPs to help influence the legislative changes Snowden had wanted for so long.
On February 21, 1857, Congress passed a coinage act, and Snowden received everything for which he had lobbied; the abolition of foreign coinage from commerce, the discontinuance of the half-cent, and the approval of the new small cent made of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The mint immediately went into full production on the new Flying Eagle Cent, and by May 25th of the same year, the new 1857 Flying Eagle Cents were ready for large-scale distribution.
In preparation for the advertised release date, the mint erected a wooden structure with 2 teller windows in their courtyard. Above one window the sign read “cents for cents” and above the other “cents for silver.” It was reported that more than a thousand people formed a line that wound around the mint building, waiting to convert their old, Spanish coins and large copper half-cents and cents. As a matter of fact, the mint even paid a premium for the old, Spanish coins. The mint redeemed the reales at the rate of 25¢ for the 2 Reales, 12-1/2¢ for the 1 Reales and 6-1/4¢ for the medios (1/2 Reales). Other government offices would only convert this coinage at 20¢, 10¢ and 5¢ respectively.
The new Flying Eagle Cents because of their nickel content (all cent pieces up until this time were pure copper) were called “nicks” by the general public. At first these coins traded at a premium, but by the time the Indian Head cent was released in 1859, the mint had manufactured a total of 42,050,000 coins with the Flying Eagle design.
The Flying Eagle Cent was not without its manufacturing problems. Most of them were attributed to the designer, Longacre. It seems many of Longacre’s design flaws were due to the relief being too high, as it was on the Flying Eagle Cent. If the coins were struck to bring out their full detail, they would not stack properly for commercial applications. If they were struck flatly, the detail would be missing on parts of the design as has been noted in much of the mintage of 1857. It has been sighted by some numismatists that the inability of the mint to strike these coins properly because of improper design characteristics was the reason this issue ended in 1858.
Many authors list the Flying Eagle Cent as being made in 1856, 1857 and 1858. Technically the official issues are in 1857 and 1858. The reason the 1856 seems to get listed, as regular issue coinage, is there were a number of restrikes that were made on the original 1856 dies. Many publications report the 1856 Flying Eagle Cent being manufactured in the years of 1858 and 1859, and maybe as late as 1860, with the coins being released into circulation as late as during the Civil War era because coins were desperately needed at that time. There is no way to tell which are the original strikes and which are the restrikes. So, are the 1856s to be considered as regular issue? That is a debate that will go on for years.
From all you have read so far, it should come as no surprise to you that it wasn’t long before bankers and merchants began to reject the small cent just as they did the large cent. It was not legal tender. With all the Congressional and political posturing to fix the monetary system, they forgot to declare the one-cent coin as acceptable money for commercial transactions. This issue was not remedied until the Coinage Act of 1865.
The Flying Eagle Cent is a short series of coins with many varieties within the series and it is a favorite to many collectors.