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The Coin That Inspired America's Modern Coin Collecting

Modern Coin Collecting Office Scene

The 1856 Flying Eagle Cents kickstarted modern coin collecting in the US.

United States Large Cents were first produced in 1793 and continued nearly uninterrupted until 1857. The lone exception was 1815, when the Mint experienced a shortage of metal. By the late 1850s, the price of copper made the coins expensive to produce and the large size contributed to their unpopularity. The coins were also not legal tender and merchants were not forced to accept them.

By the late 1840s, the US Mint began to produce various patterns exploring different metallic compositions in an effort to make cents more affordable. Billon pattern coins were produced in 1850 with a hole in the middle. These coins stated "One Tenth Silver" and were an attempt to reduce the size by making small coins with a bit of silver.

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Judd-119 1850 Pattern Cent

The 1853 issues feature the Quarter Eagle obverse design and were made of German silver, which is a combination of nickel, copper and zinc. Coins are known with different percentages of the above metals. There are smaller-sized Large Cent patterns produced in 1854 and 1855 with Liberty and Flying Eagle designs. Those interested in Pattern coinage that led to Small Cents should consult the Judd Pattern book and USpatterns.com for more information. These can sometimes be complex coins with different minor variations often seen for the same issue.

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Judd-157 1854 Pattern Cent

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Judd-167 1855 Pattern Cent

After considerable experimentation with designs and compositions, the Mint's chief engraver, James B. Longacre, prepared dies for what would become the accepted design. The 1856 Flying Eagle Cent is essentially a “copycat” coin. Longacre placed a Flying Eagle design on the front of the coin, borrowing heavily from the back of the 1836-39 Gobrecht Dollars.

For the reverse, Longacre used the wreath design from the back of the Three Dollar Gold piece, simply reducing the size to fit the cent die. The “borrowing” was done for the sake of expediency, for the Mint had to get coins into the hands of congressmen who were debating the legislation and arguing over the final composition of the alloy.

Starting in November 1856, in an effort to promote the new design, several hundred examples of the pattern issue were struck for distribution to congressmen and others. Four were reported to have been given to President Franklin Pierce. Despite the unusually large number of pattern coins struck, congressional approval had not yet been granted, and that is why most do not consider the 1856 Flying Eagle to be regular issue coinage.

The issue of how many 1856 Flying Eagle Cents were struck is further complicated by the later restrikes made to satisfy collector demand for the new issue. The exact number of coins is unknown, and modern collectors are encouraged to consider Population Reports for a best estimate of how many have survived.

Although Large Cents were produced in 1857, the advent of the smaller-sized coins created a sensation when they were first introduced. The public became enamored with the change of design, and many started collecting the “Old Style” cents. Joseph Mickley, a famous collector of the time, was born in 1799 and soon discovered this date to be quite elusive. The modern study of coins began, with Large Cents dated 1793 to 1857 becoming the focus of most of the attention. Some of the earliest references about coin collecting appeared around this time.

One of the first numismatic collecting organizations was formed in 1858. The American Numismatic Society (ANS) was founded for the appreciation of numismatics by Augustus B. Sage and others in New York City. The organization is still one of the premier numismatics groups in the country that is dedicated to numismatic research in all areas of the hobby. The ANS also has one of the best museum collections in the world.

1856 Flying Eagle Cents

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1856 Flying Eagle Cent

As mentioned above, the exact mintage for this issue is unknown. Most estimate that the combined mintage of 1856 Flying Eagle Cents is around 2,500 coins. There is also debate about which coins are circulation strike issues and which coins are true Proofs. Many believe the coins issued for Congress are what are now considered by some as circulation strikes and the later restrikes were made as Proofs.

Interestingly, NGC does not list population numbers for 1856 circulation strike Flying Eagle Cents. Their position is that all were struck as Proofs. There are no Mint records to support either position, only the physical evidence of the surviving coins. Regardless, the 1856 Flying Eagle Cent is one of the most popular coins of the 19th century. The coin is also listed in my book, 100 Greatest U.S. Coins.

Collectors have a range of grades to consider when purchasing this popular issue. Circulated coins are often encountered, many with problems or mishandling. Coins graded between Proof 62 and Proof 64 are the most commonly seen grade for the date. Superb Gem examples of 1856 Flying Eagle Cents are very rare. NGC has only graded 30 coins as PF 65, 3 as PF 66 and a single coin at the PF 67 level. It should also be noted that none have received the Cameo or Deep Cameo designation.

The pattern 1856 Flying Eagle Cents and their short-lived descendants (the regular issues of 1857-1858) launched a revolution in the birth of modern coin collecting. This short series of only three years has many interesting varieties and different issues. The Proof Flying Eagle Cents of 1857 and 1858 are both very rare and highly desirable Type coins. The US Mint also produced a host of Pattern coins centered around this issue, most specifically made for the newly created coin collectors who emerged from the mania around their release.

Whether you choose to spend the money for the relatively expensive 1856 Flying Eagle Cent or one of its much more affordable cousins, the 1857 and 1858 regular issues, you will own a coin closely tied to the start of coin collecting in America.

Jeff Garrett

Numismatist

Jeff Garrett began his coin collecting the all-American way, with Lincoln cents. In 1969, a family friend gave him a Lincoln cent board. From that time, coins became the focus of his life.

 

While growing up in the Tampa Bay area in Clearwater, Florida, Jeff became very active in several local clubs, serving as a junior officer of the Clearwater Coin Club in the 1970s. He was mentored at an early age by many of the area dealers, among them Ed French and Jeff Means. Jeff Garrett attended his first American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention at the 1974 Miami convention with Ed French and has not missed one since.

 

He has been a member of the ANA for over 35 years with life membership number 3124. At the age of 17, Garrett was offered a position with Florida Coin Exchange, one of the dominant firms of the day.