Background and History
The 1856 Flying Eagle Cent is technically a pattern piece, which was created in considerable numbers to illustrate the concept of a small sized cent. Until that point, the one cent coin had been a bulky pure copper piece, nearly as large as the half dollar. By the 1850’s the cost of producing the large cents had become greater than the face value. Also, the coins were increasingly unpopular with the public due to their weight and lack of legal tender status. Some banks and stores refused them, while others accepted them at a discount.
The new one cent coins would have a different composition, weight, and design. A number of different alloys including copper, nickel, and zinc were initially examined before the Mint Director approved an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel with a weight of 72 grains. The new coins were designed by James B. Longacre. The obverse features an eagle in flight that closely resembles Christian Gobrecht’s design for the reverse of the Gobrecht Dollars issued from 1836-1839. The reverse features an agricultural wreath of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco similar to the one designed by Longacre for the three dollar gold piece.
Near the end of 1856, the Mint produced several hundred of the new small cents to distribution to Congressman, Treasury officials, and other VIPs to gain support for the new design and format. The efforts were successful, and the new small cent was authorized with the passage of the Mint Act of February 21, 1857. The Flying Eagle Cent was produced for circulation starting in 1857.
The 1856 Flying Eagle Cents were immediately popular with collectors. During the following few years, the Mint restruck hundreds more 1856-dated cents and sold them to collectors. Coins can be found with both uncirculated and proof finishes, although debate continues as to whether all strikes should be considered proofs.
The total estimated mintage across original coins and restrikes ranges from 1,500 to as many as 3,000. This is considerably higher than the typical production level for a pattern piece. Most patterns are made in small numbers for in house evaluation, but in this situation the patterns were produced in larger quantity to ensure the passage of the authorizing legislation. The restrikes made in later years were produced for distribution to interested collectors.
Despite the fact that the 1856 Flying Eagle Cent has one of the highest mintages for a pattern coin, most collectors view the coin as a rarity and consider it to be part of a complete set of Flying Eagle Cents. This perception of rarity and the continued popularity of the issue contribute to high prices even for well worn examples.
Finest Known and Values
The highest graded examples include one coin graded PF67 by NGC and one coin graded PR67 by PCGS. Of the coins graded as uncirculated, the highest graded examples are MS66 by PCGS.
In 2004, one of the pieces graded MS66 sold for $172,500 at auction. One of the examples graded PCGS PR66 sold for $48,300 later the same year. The 1856 Flying Eagle Cent also drives a considerable premium in circulated grades, with the value for pieces graded G-4 listed at $6,700 in the Red Book.