HomeUS CoinsFlying Eagle Cent, 1856-1858 | CoinWeek

Flying Eagle Cent, 1856-1858 | CoinWeek

1856 Flying Eagle Cent. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins / CoinWeek.
1856 Flying Eagle Cent. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..

The Large Cent Gives Way to the Small Cent

By the early 1850s, copper was limited, and the price of the raw metal rose to the point that the United States Mint lost money on every cent that was made. At the same time, the large copper cents had become increasingly unpopular with the American public, which thought the coins too ugly, too heavy, and too prone to collecting dirt.

To address the situation, Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1857 that specified a smaller cent, composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel, based on trial half cents produced in that composition by Mint Director James Snowden in 1856. The same law provided for the redemption of the older cents, the now abolished half cent, and Spanish or Mexican coins that had, up to that time, freely circulated in commerce. These were all exchangeable for the new cents.

The Flying Eagle Cent Debuts

First produced as a pattern in 1856 in advance of the authorizing law, production of the coins for distribution began in 1857. The redemption system proved popular, producing long lines at the Mint in May 1857, as people eagerly traded the old coins for the new smaller cent.

Though today we consider Flying Eagles to be copper coins, at the time they were called “nicks” in reference to their nickel content. The short-lived series ended most likely because of striking problems due to the too-high relief of Longacre’s design, with the eagle’s head and tail opposite strong wreath details on the reverse. In 1859, the Flying Eagle Cent was replaced by the Indian Head cent.

Flying Eagle Cents were produced only for three years but the first-year 1856 coins, considered patterns, were not distributed for public use but were instead given to Treasury officials, members of Congress, and other VIPs.

Most of the 1856 coins were struck as Proofs, and though some are mislabeled as Mint State, true Mint State examples for the year do exist.

Coins for this first-year date were restruck in 1858 and 1859 using the original dies, so the total number produced is not accurately known. Nevertheless, it is generally estimated at fewer than 2,000 coins.

All 1856-dated coins are more expensive than coins dated 1857 and 1858 for both business strikes and Proofs. Business strike coins for the last two years are generally affordable, with prices jumping at Gem and above, but Proofs are expensive at all grades.

Prooflike business strikes have been certified, as have Cameo and Deep Cameo Proofs. Key coins for the series are the 1856 dates and an 1858/7 overdate; all Proofs are scarce to rare.



Both obverse and reverse layouts were adapted from previously used motifs. The left-facing eagle, wings outstretched in flight is from engraver Christian Gobrecht’s 1836 Liberty Seated obverse. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles inside the denticled rim around the top two-thirds of the coin, with the eagle’s right wing tip separating OF and AMERICA. The date is centered at the bottom.


An intricate plant wreath consisting of various leaves and seed heads of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco, bound at the bottom with a ribbon, is placed inside a denticled rim on the reverse. The wreath design was previously used by the coin’s designer James B. Longacre on the 1854 gold one dollar and gold three dollar coins. In the center is the two-line denominational text ONE CENT. All were minted at Philadelphia, and no mint marks are displayed on the coins.


The edge of the Flying Eagle cent is plain or smooth, without reeding or lettering.


Series expert Richard Snow outlines dozens of die varieties for the Flying Eagle Cent series in his two-volume reference. The three best-known varieties are the 1858/7 overdate, the Large Letter 1858, and the Small Letter 1858. Several additional varieties are also known in this popular and extensively studied series, and include die doubling, clashing, and other minor die variations.

Coin Specifications

Flying Eagle Cent
Years Of Issue: 1856-58
Mintage: High: 24,600,000 (1858); Low: 1,500 (1856; estimated)
Alloy: 88% copper, 12% nickel
Weight: ±4.67 g
Diameter: ±19.00 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer: James Barton Longacre
REV Designer: James Barton Longacre


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Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of United States Coins. Doubleday.

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

Snow, Richard E. A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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