The mid 1850s was a pivotal time for the United States Mint. A mess of foreign coins – mainly Spanish Pillar Dollars (or Pieces of Eight) – were comingling in circulation along with United States coinage; even more than 60 years after the United States Mint was established in 1792, Americans continued using coins from abroad, which served a major role in United States commerce before enough coins had been domestically struck by the United States Mint to fulfill the nation’s economic demands.
Meanwhile, inflation caused the half cent to lose most of its practical purchasing power. And the value of a penny had decreased in value so much since its debut in 1793 as an official circulating coin that fewer Americans much cared to carry around huge quantities of the coin for everyday purchases. Furthermore, the price of copper had increased to the point that it cost $1.06 to coin 100 one-cent coins, which then measured a girthy 27.5 millimeters wide and tipped the scales at 10.89 grams.
Birth of the Copper-Nickel Cent
Proposals were pitched for a replacement composition for the one-cent coin that would be less expensive to produce than the pure-copper “pennies” that had been struck since 1793. Among the various metallic compositions considered, including ring-shaped one-cent coins made from billon (10% silver, 90% copper), the concept of a nickel-based concept began circulating on Capitol Hill. Granted, the idea for a one-cent coin containing nickel was of anything but spontaneous origin. Nickel mining magnate Joseph Wharton had many friends at the United States Mint and Treasury, and he had submitted various proposals for making coins from the silvery-white metal in which he held huge stakes.
In 1856, Director of the United States Mint James Ross Snowden, who knew Wharton from their days as neighbors in northeastern Pennsylvania, opted for a new one-cent coin alloy composed of 88% copper, 12% nickel. This revamped “penny” would also be much smaller in diameter and weight than the large cents that preceded it. Chief Engraver James B. Longacre was tasked with the assignment of creating new designs for the coin, to be anchored by a Flying Eagle motif on the obverse and a wreath encircling the words “ONE CENT” on the reverse.
A small but significant number of 1856 Flying Eagle Cents were struck as patterns to be shown to lawmakers and other civic leaders, though exactly how many of these coins was made is unknown. Existing records suggest at least 634 business strikes were made plus another run of restrikes possibly bringing the total of business strikes to possibly as many 2,150. Proofs were also struck numbering perhaps 1,500. The majority are believed to still exist as they were in high demand from the beginning and saved by collectors in droves, including a hoard of 756 specimens in various states of preservation by American Numismatic Association Secretary George W. Rice.
New Cents Fly In
The 1856 Flying Eagle Cent proved popular among those who were aware of them, and the push was on to formally legalize the new “small” cent. The Coinage Act of February 21, 1857 authorized production of the new copper-nickel one-cent coins, and it also called for the elimination of the half cent and demonetization of the foreign coins circulating in United States commerce. Following passage of the Coinage Act of 1857, production was halted for large cents, which closed out 1857 with a mintage of 333,546. Meanwhile, the 1857 Flying Eagle Cent debuted with great fanfare on May 25, 1857, including a public release ceremony held on the grounds of the Philadelphia Mint.
The small cent caught on quickly. A total of 17,450,000 Flying Eagle Cents were struck for circulation in 1857, followed up by another 24,600,000 in 1858. The new copper-nickel cents, dubbed “white cents” for their characteristic light hue, were successful enough as a circulating coin. However, Mint officials noticed the Flying Eagle design was not striking up very well and called for a replacement.
A number of revised designs were designed by Longacre and struck in 1858 carrying various new designs, including an obverse featuring a profile of a Miss Liberty with classic Greek facial features but wearing a feathered headdress more typical of Native American culture. Longacre’s design of Miss Liberty in the feathered headdress became the successor the Flying Eagle Cent. The new motif, dubbed the Indian Cent, was first struck for mass distribution in 1859.
It not only proved to strike up more fully than the Flying Eagle Cent, but also numismatists and the general public alike took to the Indian Cent, which eventually ticked off a half century of production time. But its 50-year run, spanning from 1859 through 1909, did not come without some hiccups, including a shortage of small-denomination coinage in the early 1860s – at the height of the Civil War – that instigated changes in the composition of the new small cent.
Nickel Out, Bronze In
During the Civil War, copper-nickel cents were hoarded in great quantity. As these and other forms of small change disappeared from circulation, a variety of other types of currency filtered in. These include so-called Shinplasters, Federal Fractional Currency, and privately made bronze tokens – the latter now known by numismatists as Civil War Tokens. Meanwhile, nickel supplies dried up, pushing the price of the metal through the roof. Production costs weren’t the only issue persuading Mint officials to move away from nickel; the metal is also quite hard to work with and did a number on the dies.
With the cost of producing the one-cent coin exceeding the coin’s face value, Mint officials began experimenting with new metals for making one-cent coins. Eventually, a bronze composition was chosen that consists of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. This new composition was formally authorized by Congress with the passage of the Coinage Act of April 22, 1864. The new bronze one-cent coins not only would assume a darker color than the previous copper-nickel “white cents,” but they would also weigh less, too – the thicker nickel-based cents coming in at 4.67 grams and the thinner bronze pieces weighing only 3.11 grams.
The transition from copper-nickel planchets to bronze was a mid-year event. The Philadelphia Mint pumped out a total of 13,740,000 circulation-strike copper-nickel cents and 39,233,714 bronze business strikes. The new bronze cents not only filled an important need with the massive coin shortage afoot during the Civil War, but they also satisfied the public. By the close of the Civil War, which spanned from 1861 through 1865, the bronze cent had earned its place in United States commerce. There wouldn’t be notable changes to the composition of the one-cent coin again until nearly 80 years later during another time of national strife – World War II.
Collecting Copper-Nickel Cents
Striking of copper-nickel cents lasted only nine years, and this includes the first-year striking of Flying Eagle Cents in 1856 – technically only patterns. Therefore, the body of copper-nickel cents isn’t necessarily very large when considering the number of issues and varieties made. Though this does not intend to suggest that completing a collection of these coins is an inexpensive endeavor. Quite the contrary! Those who wish to collect all the patterns, varieties, and the various proof and business-strike pieces can easily spend many years and several hundred thousand dollars in the process.
Some collectors have indeed taken on just such an adventure, building exquisite PCGS Registry Sets consisting of some very high-grade – as well as rare and valuable – copper-nickel Flying Eagle Cents and Indian Cents. For those on a more modest budget, assembling a collection of regular-issue business strikes spanning from 1857 through 1864 remains an exciting objective, though one that is much more affordable for most collectors.
This relatively short collection entails the collecting of not just two major types (the Flying Eagle and Indian designs), but also two subtypes within the latter series. While the Indian Cent debuted in 1859 with pleasing strike quality, it still had not perfected on some of the striking issues seen with the Flying Eagle Cent. To address this, Longacre was tasked with refinements to the reverse design to include an oak wreath encircling the denomination “ONE CENT” with a small shield near the center top of the reverse. This new design debuted in 1860, replacing the one-year type 1859 Indian Cent with olive wreath reverse, absent the shield. Another change occurring in 1860 was a modification to the front tip of Miss Liberty’s neck, with some rare earlier pieces from 1860 exhibiting a sharply pointed bust and the latter (more common) issue that year showcasing a rounded bust; the rounded bust would carry on through 1864.
A rundown of the regular-issue circulation strikes (excluding the 1856) plus the most widely collected varieties includes the following:
- 1857 Flying Eagle
- 1858 Large Letters
- 1858 Small Letters
- 1859 Indian
- 1860 Pointed Bust
A basic circulation set of copper-nickel cents avoids the major varieties listed above, leaving only nine coins. However, many collectors – even those on stricter budgets – choose to leave the major varieties in their collecting objectives to help augment some of the challenge in building the set. However, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to pursue a set of copper-nickel cents, leaving the collector to choose for herself or himself what such a collection of these classic one-cent coins will look like upon completion.
- Breen, Walter. Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- Reynolds, Greg. “Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each, Part 12: Copper-Nickel Indian Cents.” CoinWeek. January 21, 2015.
- Snow, Richard. A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, 3rd Edition. Whitman Publishing, 2016.