In the mid-19th century, working-class Americans living wage was only 10 cents an hour, so people understandably watched their "pennies" closely. But by the 1850s, many Americans actually were clamoring to have the cent’s clout diminished. What bothered them, however, wasn’t its buying power but its size: The copper cent being minted at the time was almost as large and heavy as today’s half dollar, and many had come to consider it simply too big for their britches… literally, they were so large and bulky that these coins wore out the linings of many Americans’ pockets. But not to worry, the United States Mint responded to this concern in 1857 when they discontinued the large cent and half cent and introduced the Flying Eagle Cent, the nation’s first small-size cent. It was a great solution but it soon became obvious that the new cent, featuring a portrait of an eagle in flight, was a less-than-perfect solution.
First, we all have to understand that "Small" is a relative term. Although it was far smaller than previous U.S. cents, the Flying Eagle Cent was actually rather large in relation to its present-day counterpart. It 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 grams. (The cent was further reduced to about its present weight in 1864.) The new coin also was lighter in color, leading some to call it a "white" cent (although it was really whitish tan).
The Flying Eagle Cent’s obverse depicts an eagle soaring with the words “United States of America” curved above and the date prominently displayed below. You may not know that the eagle illustrated on the coin, designed by James Barton Longacre, isn’t really original. Longacre clearly borrowed it from the Gobrecht dollar, the magnificent silver dollar prepared two decades earlier by his predecessor, Christian Gobrecht. And Gobrecht, in turn, had based the design on a sketch by famed artist Titian Peale.
James B. Longacre was an American portraitist and engraver, and from 1844 until his death, he was the fourth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint. Longacre is best known for designing the Indian Head cent, which entered commerce in 1859 following the Flying Eagle cent. In Longacre’s first years as a chief engraver, the Philadelphia Mint was dominated by Mint Director Robert M. Patterson and Chief Coiner Franklin Peale. The conflict between Longacre and the two men developed after Congress ordered a new gold dollar and double eagle, with both to be designed by Longacre. Peale and Patterson nearly had Longacre fired, but Longacre was able to convince Treasury Secretary William M. Meredith that he should be retained. Both Patterson and Peale left the Mint in the early 1850s, ending the conflict.
The cent’s reverse, like much of Longacre’s coinage art, could be described as functional, rather than aesthetic. It bears the inscription "ONE CENT" within a wreath. And like a number of other Longacre wreaths, it’s made up of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco – four staples of U.S. agriculture – instead of the more traditional but less American laurel. This feature has been described as a "cornucopia wreath". The new Flying Eagle cent’s release became quite a festive event, marked by the kind of hoopla witnessed today when statehood Washington quarters or Lewis and Clark nickels are unveiled. In this case, the event took the form of that yard sale – or, viewed another way, a "one-cent sale." 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. When people hold yard sales today, they do so to get rid of old possessions – furniture, clothing, appliances, knickknacks, and other odds and ends. When the U.S. Mint held its very special yard sale in 1857, they actually did it as a way of introducing something new, meaning, the first small-size cent in the nation’s history.
Expecting heavy demand, the government erected a temporary wooden building with two separate windows – one labeled "Cents for Cents," the other "Cents for Silver." People arriving with large cents or silver coins were directed to the appropriate window, where weighers and clerks were standing by, ready to give them $5 canvas sacks of Flying Eagle cents in exchange. The scene had a circus-like quality, Thousands of eager buyers milled around the yard, like vacationers in queues for popular amusement park rides. 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.
Plus, these buyers had to pay full price for the newly minted coins, but in their defense, it was a bargain: Within a matter of minutes, many resold the coins at a very healthy profit to other Philadelphians taken with the novelty of the lustrous little cents. As you can only imagine, 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 so large that there were over a thousand people in zigzag lines, all weighed down with small change, and waiting patiently for their turn to purchase the newly minted coins. By the end of the day, the Mint had nearly exhausted its entire inventory of 3 million coins – $30,000 worth of shiny new Flying Eagle cents. All of them were dated 1857.
Mint Director James Ross Snowden had never been fully satisfied with the Flying Eagle coin. Although its initial success seemed to be a hit, the Flying Eagle cent was destined to have a very short run. After being issued for only two years, 1857 and 1858, it gave way to the Indian Head cent. One reason behind this was that the coin design presented technical problems. High points on one side didn’t always correspond to low points on the other, plus the hardness of the nickel in the alloy resulted in numerous weakly struck coins. The director sent Longacre back to the drawing board, where he came up with more than a dozen prospective new designs. Snowden suggested at one point that Christopher Columbus might be an appropriate subject, but Longacre balked at this idea. The chief engraver finally settled on a portrait of a girl – ostensibly an Indian, but more likely a Caucasian (some have even suggested his daughter Sara) wearing a feathered headdress. Today we know it as the Indian Head Cent. This design replaced the flying eagle with the start of cent production in 1859, but that is another story.
The Mint struck 17.5 million Flying Eagle cents in 1857 and 24.6 million in 1858. Collectors got a bonus in 1858 when cents came in two distinct kinds – one with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in small letters and one with large lettering. While interesting, both of these are relatively common. The 1856 Flying Eagle cent is widely collected and is highly coveted not only as of the first small cent in U.S. history but also as one of the rarest and most valuable and while its flight was exceptionally short, the Flying Eagle’s shadow has been long. This simple little coin got small-size U.S. cents off the ground – and they have been flying high ever since.