The Flying Eagle Cent was struck in the United States for circulation in 1857 and 1858. The series of small cents was the successor to the large cent, which was expensive to make and not popular with the general public. Although the 1856-dated Flying Eagle Cent exists in both circulation strike and proof format, these are in fact pattern coins and not regular issues. Numismatic tradition, however, has led many people to the conclusion that this is a regular issue struck for circulation in limited quantities giving the coin the allure of a classic key date coin.
The one cent denomination was first struck in 1793, and virtually continuously since. The denomination has been used in everyday general commerce since they were first minted. Until 1857, the cent had a large size, and had a weight of 10.93 grams. The coins were struck in pure copper, a material which steadily rose in value during the first 50 years of the 19th century leading the Mint to consider other sizes and compositions.
Various metals were proposed, including copper, bronze, German silver (a composition of nickel, copper and zinc), and billion (a composition of 90% copper and 10% silver). The decision was finally made in 1856 by James Booth, the Mint’s melter and refiner, to produce the new cents in a copper-nickel composition. These coins would have a weight that was less than half of the previous large cents.
The new small cents were designed by James Barton Longacre. The obverse displays a flying eagle, as used on the silver dollars made in the 1830’s designed by Christian Gobrecht and certain 1854 and 1855 pattern cents. The reverse shows an agricultural wreath consisting of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco leaves with the denomination “ONE CENT” within. The same wreath had previously been used for the $1 and $3 gold pieces.
The Flying Eagle Cent was only struck for circulation during 1857 and 1858 at the Philadelphia Mint. By that time it had become apparent that the cents were too difficult to strike, as the relief was too high. Soon the design was abandoned, and replaced by the Indian Head Cent, which was minted until 1909.