The Flying Eagle Cent, minted from 1856 to 1858, holds a special place in the heart of numismatists as a brief but impactful chapter in American coinage. This small copper coin, featuring a captivating eagle in flight, marked a departure from earlier designs and set the stage for future innovations. In this exploration, we’ll navigate the history of the Flying Eagle Cent, examining its origins, design nuances, and the allure of rare and valuable versions that have become coveted treasures for collectors.
I. Genesis of the Flying Eagle Cent:
Predecessors and the Need for Change
In the early 1850s, the United States Mint faced challenges with the Large Cent, including production costs and the coin’s size. Mint officials sought a more economical and aesthetically pleasing alternative, leading to the exploration of new designs.
James B. Longacre’s Vision
Chief Engraver James B. Longacre was tasked with designing a new small cent, and his vision materialized in the form of the Flying Eagle Cent. Introduced in 1856, this coin featured a striking eagle in flight on the obverse, a departure from the static representations of earlier coins.
II. The Design and Symbolism:
Eagle in Flight: A Symbol of Progress
The Flying Eagle Cent’s obverse showcased an eagle in dynamic flight, surrounded by a wreath of laurel. The reverse featured a wreath of corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco, representing the agricultural abundance of the United States. The combination of the eagle in action and the agricultural motifs reflected the nation’s progress and vitality.
III. Brief but Impactful:
Three Years Only
The Flying Eagle Cent had a relatively short lifespan, minted only from 1856 to 1858. Despite its brevity, this coin left an indelible mark on American numismatics, both for its design innovation and its influence on future small cent coins.
IV. Rarity and Valuable Versions:
1856: The Inaugural Issue
The 1856 Flying Eagle Cent holds a special place in numismatic history as the first of its kind. Struck in limited quantities as a pattern coin, it was initially intended for circulation but was later replaced by a slightly modified design. The rarity of the 1856 issue makes it highly sought after by collectors, commanding premium prices in the market.
1857 and 1858 Issues
While the 1857 and 1858 Flying Eagle Cents are more common than their inaugural counterpart, they are still valued by collectors for their historical significance and the short-lived nature of the series. These coins, minted for circulation, represent the transition from the Flying Eagle Cent to the Indian Head Cent.
V. The Minting Challenges:
Small Diameter and High Relief
The small diameter and high relief of the Flying Eagle Cent posed challenges during the minting process. Striking coins with intricate designs on small planchets required precision and attention to detail. Minting technology of the time struggled to consistently produce coins with the desired quality, contributing to the decision to transition to a larger cent design.
VI. Legacy and Transition:
Influence on the Indian Head Cent
While the Flying Eagle Cent’s production was short-lived, its influence extended to subsequent coinage. The transition to the Indian Head Cent in 1859 retained the smaller size and introduced a new aesthetic featuring Liberty wearing a Native American headdress. The innovations pioneered by the Flying Eagle Cent set the stage for future small cent designs.
VII. Collecting and Grading:
Collectors of the Flying Eagle Cent often pursue a complete set, including all three years of production. The rarity of the 1856 issue adds an exciting challenge to collectors aiming for a comprehensive collection. Some enthusiasts also focus on obtaining coins in the highest grades possible, with uncirculated specimens being particularly prized.
Professional Grading Services
Professional grading services play a crucial role in the Flying Eagle Cent collector’s market. Graded coins provide a standardized assessment of a coin’s condition, aiding collectors in evaluating its rarity and desirability. The grading process considers factors such as wear, luster, and overall preservation.
The Flying Eagle Cent, with its brief yet impactful presence, remains a cherished piece of numismatic history. The innovative design, symbolizing progress and vitality, captures the spirit of a nation in transition. The rarity and valuable versions of this coin, especially the 1856 issue, add a layer of intrigue and excitement for collectors. As these small copper discs change hands in the contemporary market, they carry with them not just monetary value but a tangible connection to a pivotal moment in American coinage. The Flying Eagle Cent, with its wings spread in perpetual flight, continues to soar through the pages of numismatic history, leaving an everlasting imprint on the hearts of collectors and enthusiasts alike.