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Flying Eagle Cents 1856 – 1858

Chief Engraver James B. Longacre and the Flying Eagle Cent

The year is 1854 and the US Mint is bleeding money. They are losing money on every Half Cant and Large Cent that they strike. Demand for these coins has slowed significantly but as copper is finding many other industrial uses, the price of copper is rising. The Large Cent had been minted since 1793 and the Mint was looking for not only a different design but a different coin.

(1854 Pattern as a Replacement for the Large Cent. It was made of Copper and approximately the same size as the then-current Large Cent)

The suggested pattern coins, like those above, would not remedy the situation. A different obverse design would not suddenly make the coin desirable. We needed something radically different.

(An undated (but 1856) Flying Eagle Cent pattern. It was smaller but still made of copper.)

So Chief Mint Engraver James B. Longacre went about designing a radically different coin. Longacre would become a prolific coin designer and engraver. He loved the classical designs and was inspired by them. In the late 1830s, the Mint had an Engraver of unusually sophisticated talent. Christian Gobrecht designed several Pattern Silver Dollars between 1836 and 1839. These coins were the forerunners to the Liberty Seated Silver Dollars, which Gobrecht also designed. His dominant design among these was an American Eagle in flight and Longacre was impressed by the majesty of the design. 

(An 1836 Gobrecht Dollar Reverse, with the Eagle in flight design.)

Longacre went about his work and designed his own “Flying Eagle” coin. The new cent was to be smaller than the current Large Cent and was to be made of 88% Copper and 12% Nickel instead of 100% Copper. This would allow the US Mint to strike these coins profitably.

The Mint struck between 2,000 and 3,000 of these pattern coins to convince Congress that the Mint had alleviated this problem. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the coin community believed that only 1,000 of these 1856-dated coins were struck but with the advent of 3rd party certification and population reports that number had to be increased to accommodate the higher numbers of these coins being submitted for certification and grading.

(The 1856 “Pattern” Flying Eagle Cent.)

The Mint Director, James Ross Snowden advocated for the elimination of the Half Cent coin – as its buying power by the 1850s was nil. He also advocated for a reduction in the size of the One Cent coin and a change of metals from pure Copper. Snowden was successful on all counts.

(Chief Engraver James B. Longacre designed the new Flying Eagle coins).

The Mint struck several hundred 1856 Flying Eagle pattern cents and shared them with President Franklin Pierce and select members of Congress seeking their approval and acceptance.  

As approval came in early 1857, many of the 333,456 1857-dated Large Cents were not placed into circulation. They remained at the Mint and were melted during the year. In another interesting development, US Mint Director Snowden wanted the Mint to create its own blank planchets and he went ahead about the necessary equipment. Flying Eagle cents were struck beginning in April 1857 but not released until May 25th, so the supply of available cents would meet the demand.

The Philadelphia Mint built a temporary wooden structure in the courtyard of the Philadelphia facility for distributing these coins. Hundreds of people came seeking these new coins. While awaiting the new 1857-dated coins, many members of the public found out about the several hundred 1856-dated coins and that caused a frenzy of people looking for those earlier dated coins. It also was the catalyst for people to begin collecting coins in America and the desire was to now put together a collection of each US coin struck since the Mint started producing coins in 1793.

But not everything was problem-free. The Mint had trouble striking the new design using the harder copper-nickel alloy metal. Dies would wear out and break much faster than what the Mint had been used to seeing. The eagle design was a bit uneven and would not strike up evenly all around. The tensions grew between Engraver Longacre and Director Snowden. The Director suggested that the Flying Eagle side of the coin be redesigned using a bust of Christopher Columbus. The Engraver shot back that there had been a great deal of opposition to putting a beloved American Icon like George Washington on our coins and there certainly would be even greater opposition to a Columbus coin.

By 1858, the Mint was rapidly running out of dies and in desperation they had Longacre reduce the depth of the relief, thinking that a shallower die would be easier to strike. But this led to a multitude of varieties of 1858-dated coins to be struck – Large Letters, Small Letters and a 1858/7 overdated coin. Thus, the handwriting was on the wall and even with over 42 million coins struck Longacre would be pressed into service to create another entirely different design – the Indian Head cent.

DateTypeMintageFine ValueUnc Value
1856Flying Eagle Pattern2,000 to 3,000$10,000$20,000
1857Flying Eagle17,450,000$65$450
1858Flying Eagle – Large Letters24,500,000$65$450
1858Flying Eagle –   Small LettersIncluded$65$650
1858Flying Eagle – 1858/7Included$300$4,000

Expand your collection today and shop our assortment of Flying Eagle Pennies (1856-1858).

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