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THE FLYING EAGLE CENT: A SMALL COIN’S BIG DEBUT

By Ed Reiter 

   

          Very few Americans seem to have noticed the change that has occurred in their cents since 1982. The transition from copper cents to copper-plated zinc –   though significant in nature – has taken place with little or no fanfare and almost no apparent public awareness.

 

          Things were far different in 1857, when another major cent change took effect. But then, that was a more dramatic change: It involved drastic differences not only in composition but also in size. And whereas the U.S. Mint did its level best to minimize publicity about the most recent change, the earlier one took place in an atmosphere of maximum exposure. Mint officials launched it, in fact, with what might be described as a “yard sale.”

 

          The change in question involved the demise of the coin we know today as the “large cent” and the advent of this nation’s first small-size cent: the Flying Eagle.

 

          That first small cent was actually rather large in relation to its present-day counterpart. The Flying Eagle cent 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. Even so, it was 2 1/3 times lighter-weight than the Liberty Head cent it replaced. It also was lighter in color, for while the “large cent” was made of pure copper, the Flying Eagle was struck in a brand new alloy of 88-percent copper and 12-percent nickel, which gave it a whitish-tan look.

 

          Besides being dramatic, the change was most welcome, as well, for the large cent had become increasingly unpopular. For one thing, people found it too bulky; it was almost as heavy, and almost as big, as the half dollar. Then, too, being unalloyed copper, it had a disturbing tendency to blacken and grow foul.

 

          On top of everything else, the federal government had a compelling fiscal incentive for the change: Copper was rising in price and the large cent had gotten too costly to produce. It’s interesting to note that this very same problem was one of the principal reasons for the latest change in the cent; the rising price of copper during the 1970s caused the Mint to seek an alternative metal – and that search led at length to copper-plated zinc.

 

          One of the most interesting aspects of the small cent’s debut, more than a century-and-a-half ago, was the “one-cent sale” conducted by the Mint on that occasion. 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.

 

          Anticipating heavy demand for the coin, and hoping to feed that demand, the government erected a temporary wooden building with two separate windows: one labeled “Cents for Cents,” the other “Cents for Silver.” People brought large cents or silver coins to the appropriate window, and there they found weighers and clerks standing by, ready to give them $5 canvas sacks of Flying Eagle cents in exchange.

 

          Thousands of shoppers descended upon the mint to buy up the newly minted coins – and while they had to pay full price for every piece, they nonetheless regarded this as a bargain. Many, in fact, resold the coins in minutes at a very healthy profit.

 

          As its name suggests, the Flying Eagle cent bore the image of an eagle in flight. That was the central theme on the obverse, while the reverse depicted a wreath. This simple, uncluttered design was the work of the Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver, James Barton Longacre.

 

          The coin might not have been a distinguished work of art, but that didn’t bother the hordes that besieged the mint. They had been drawn by the novelty, not the look.

 

          The scene outside the mint had a circus-like quality; indeed, it resembled a cross between Alice’s Wonderland and modern-day Disneyland.

 

          “The invading throng was arranged into lines,” according to an account that appeared thereafter 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 day’s end, the mint had all but exhausted its total inventory of 3 million pieces – $30,000 worth of shiny new Flying Eagle cents.

 

          All of the coins sold on that memorable day were 1857 Flying Eagles. Those, however, were not the first coins in the series. A year before, while seeking authorization to make the smaller cents, the Mint had produced about 1,000 pieces and given some to members of Congress as samples of what it was planning.

 

          Strictly speaking, those were pattern coins, rather than regular issues. Nonetheless, they were plentiful enough for collectors to include them in sets, and that has made them highly appealing ever since. The 1856 Flying Eagle has long been regarded as one of the most desirable and most valuable of all U.S. cents, and mint-state examples currently bring prices that are well up in the four-figure range – and even in five figures for truly exceptional pieces.

 

          Despite its initial popularity, the Flying Eagle cent proved to be a short-lived issue. It was regularly issued in only two years – 1857 and 1858 – before giving way to the now-familiar Indian Head type. The Mint produced 17.5 million examples in 1857 and 24.6 million in 1858, but in 1858 there was a bonus for variety collectors: That year’s cents came in two distinct kinds – one with “United States of America” in small letters and one with large lettering. Both of these are relatively common.

 

          The Flying Eagle’s flight was all too brief, but its shadow has been very long indeed” It firmly established the small-size cent as a very large cog in U.S. coinage.

  

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