History of the Flying Eagle
The first pennies minted by the US Mint were much larger than the ones produced today and made of nearly pure copper. However, due to the rising price of copper, it cost $1.06 to produce a dollar’s worth of pennies by 1851. To address this negative seigniorage, Mint director James R. Snowden decided to strike an experimental penny that was half as heavy and no longer composed of pure copper. Instead, it was composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel due to lobbying by industrialist and nickel mine monopolist Joseph Wharton. With its reduced size and Wharton’s nickel, the Flying Eagle cent had achieved Snowden’s goal and was less expensive to produce.
To distinguish the two, the larger, pure copper pennies were referred to as “Large Cents” and the new pennies became known as “Small Cents.”
Designed by Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, the Flying Eagle penny features an American bald eagle mid-flight on the obverse and the denomination “ONE CENT” enclosed by a wreath on the reverse. This iconic eagle design was based on the Gobrecht silver dollar, produced from 1836 to 1839. It does not feature a mint mark.
In 1856, Snowden ordered 1,000 Flying Eagle cents to be struck as pattern coins without authorization from Congress, making these first pennies technically illegal. In an effort to get widespread adoption and official authorization, hundreds were distributed to politicians and well-connected people. Interestingly, early collectors amassed over 1,000 of these 1856-dates coins, so the actual number of these unofficial 1856 coins is unknown.
In February 1857, Congress passed an act to authorize Small Cent minting. Flying Eagle pennies were officially produced until they were replaced by the Indian Head penny in 1858. The reason for this quick change in design after only three years isn’t known, but it was likely due to striking issues with the design. There is a noticeable weakness in the tail feathers of the eagle, with fully-intact tail feathers being the exception rather than the rule.
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Are Flying Eagle cents rare?
Flying Eagle pennies were only minted from 1856 to 1858, making them one of the rarest Small Cent designs. Like all coins, some years of production are rarer than others. Coin grade is also a factor: a circulated 1857 Flying Eagle cent can be worth $30 and up, while mint condition 1857 coins can be worth hundreds.
What is the rarest Flying Eagle cent?
Of the penny’s three years of production, the 1856 Flying Eagle penny is the rarest. It was struck as a pattern coin for a Small Cent design. The actual number of pennies that were produced is unknown; while only around 1,000 of these coins were commissioned by Mint Director Snowden to be struck and distributed, more than 1,000 are recorded as having been collected. Over the years, this number has dwindled, making this rare and illegally minted coin even rarer. These coins are worth thousands in good condition and over $10,000 in great condition.
What materials are copper cents made with?
While the original Large Cents were produced with pure copper, virtually all pennies produced after it are a copper alloy. Flying Eagle cents are composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel, while today’s United States copper cents have been composed of copper-plated zinc (97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper) since 1982.