Evolution of a Denomination Series: Small Cents Part I

In the mid-1850s, large copper cents were starting to wear out their welcome. It became obvious to many at the United States Mint that they cost more to make and distribute than their circulation and popularity were worth. Mint Director James Ross Snowden found the coins, the half-cents as well, too costly. Besides, his desire to see all foreign coins driven out of the United States economy was high on the list. Spanish colonial silver coins made their way through circulation and having coinage based on the trustworthiness of American financial institutions was an idea that did not go away. With both the large cent problem and the foreign coin circulation looming, the coinage law passed by Congress on February 21, 1857, seemingly resolved both issues.

While redeeming Spanish coins for new cents through the Treasury Department and the Mint took effect, the new cent coins were to weigh 72 grains with a metal composition of 88% copper and 12% nickel. Both old copper cents and half-cents were able to be redeemed for the new smaller cents as well.

Flying Eagle (1856-1858)

In 1856, a Flying Eagle cent pattern was produced to show Congress just how the new smaller cent coin would look. Proof coins were also minted with the intent to sell to collectors. Between both pattern finishes, it is believed that between 2,000 and 3,000 total pieces were struck in 1856. Because of their early popularity, the 1856 Flying Eagle patterns are highly collectible along with regular-issue coins.

When the Flying Eagle cents were officially released in 1857, a hoard of people flocked to the Mint building to exchange their Spanish coins and larger copper cents for the new smaller cent. Designed by James B. Longacre, the Flying Eagle design was adapted from pattern silver dollars years before. The eagle depiction was created by Titian Peale and sculpted by third Chief Engraver of the United States Mint Christian Gobrecht. The wreath reverse was also adapted from a model made for 1854 $1 and $3 gold pieces by Longacre.

Mintage for the 1857 dated Flying Eagle cent reached 17,450,000. However, fully struck coins from that year included design flaws as the relief on the coins were too high. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dies that were less than apt ended up with either two problems: the eagle’s head and tail not striking to the fullest on the obverse and the wreath on the reverse lacking defined detail. A weak reverse is often defined on coins from 1857.

The next year, 1858, the Mint produced 24,600,000 coins with three different varieties present. Large letters, small letters, and an 8 over 7 variety that is identified by a small dot in the field above the first 8. This meant that during the production of the coins, the die used was ground down until the 7 was made to be invisible. This made those coins that showed the 7 more alluring to collectors.

Indian Head (1859-1909)

While the new smaller cent design went over well when it was introduced in 1857, the Flying Eagle design came with several flaws. Mint Director Snowden quickly had Chief Engraver Longacre start working on new designs for which would replace the previous one. In the end, Longacre would come up with a design that depicted Lady Liberty wearing an Indian headdress on the obverse with a laurel wreath design on the reverse. Production would start in January of 1859 and the Indian Head cent would be born. Mintage would consist of 36,400,000 total coins with two reverse varieties and a copper-nickel composition in that first year. Nearly 158 million coins were produced in copper-nickel from 1859-1864 with all of them being produced in Philadelphia.

During the American Civil War, a disappearance of gold, silver, and copper-nickel from circulation in both the Midwest and the Eastern United States took place. By 1864, the Act of April 22nd was issued which allowed the government to produce a bronze coin. From 1864-1909, the Indian Head cent would be comprised of .950 copper and .050 tin and zinc, also known as bronze. Over 1.5 billion coins were produced in bronze between 1864-1909 before a completely new design would replace the Indian Head cent.

Source: NGC Coin; The Official 2021 Red Book