Spreading Their Wings: The Comprehensive Collector‘s Guide to Flying Eagle Cents

In the mid-1850s, America was a nation on the move. The California Gold Rush was in full swing, new states and territories were joining the Union, and the Industrial Revolution was transforming the economy. Against this backdrop of growth and change, the U.S. Mint faced a challenge: how to make coins more convenient for commerce.

The large copper cents struck since 1793 were feeling archaic and cumbersome. Rising copper prices made the coins expensive to produce, while their bulky size proved unpopular in circulation. The public clamored for smaller cents that were easier to handle. The Mint‘s solution? The flying eagle cent – a petite copper-nickel coin featuring a soaring eagle motif that would briefly take flight from 1856 to 1858.

Today, the short-lived flying eagle cents are among the most coveted and valuable issues in U.S. numismatics. Even well-worn examples can fetch significant sums, while exceptional pieces have soared to record heights. What makes these coins so special? How rare are they across different grades? What are some major varieties to pursue? And how can you add one of these mid-19th century treasures to your collection? Let‘s spread our numismatic wings and find out!

A New Cent Takes Flight

The story of the flying eagle cent begins with a talented artist: James B. Longacre. Appointed as the U.S. Mint‘s Chief Engraver in 1844, Longacre was a skilled portraitist and medallist. In the 1850s, Mint Director James Ross Snowden tapped him to redesign American silver and gold coinage. But Longacre‘s most lasting contribution would be in copper and nickel.

In 1856, the Mint was searching for a suitable replacement for the large cent. Longacre proposed a new design featuring a flying eagle on the obverse and a simple wreath and denomination on the reverse. The motif was inspired by centuries-old depictions of eagles in European heraldry and symbolized American strength and freedom.

After experimenting with various metallic compositions and sizes, the Mint settled on an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel in a 19mm diameter – slightly smaller than a modern cent. The hard, silvery metal would prove challenging to strike but allowed for lower production costs than pure copper.

1856 Pattern Cents

Before regular coinage could begin, the Mint needed to test the waters with the new flying eagle design and composition. Longacre and his team prepared a series of pattern cents in late 1856, identified today by their Judd catalog numbers. These included:

Judd Composition Diameter Mintage Auction Record
J-179 Copper 19mm 3-4 known $172,500 (PR65 PCGS)
J-180 Copper 22mm Unique $161,000 (PR64 PCGS)
J-181 Copper-nickel 19mm 1000-1500 $149,500 (PR66 PCGS)
J-184 Aluminum 19mm 3-4 known $138,000 (MS64 NGC)

Only about 1,500 copper-nickel J-181 patterns (the precursor to the regular issues) were struck in 1856. These were distributed to Congressional leaders, Mint personnel, and well-connected collectors. Today, any 1856 flying eagle cent is a major rarity. Examples are known in every grade from well-circulated to pristine gems. An 1856 graded Proof-67 by PCGS set an auction record of $172,500 in 2004.

Taking Wing in Commerce

After the positive reception to the 1856 patterns, Congress authorized a full-scale issue of the new small cents in 1857. More than 17.4 million pieces were struck that first year – a substantial mintage, but still far scarcer than later Indian and Lincoln cents. The high-relief design proved challenging to fully strike, so many 1857 cents show weakness in the eagle‘s head, tail and wingtips.

Mint engravers tweaked the design slightly in 1858, reducing the size of the lettering and flattening the eagle‘s breast. Two distinct varieties were produced that year: the 1858 Large Letters (LL) and 1858 Small Letters (SL). The LL coins were struck first, followed by the SL cents later in the year. The large letters reverse is rarer, with only about 3 million struck vs. over 21 million SL coins.

Here‘s a date-by-date population breakdown of flying eagle cents in major grade ranges:

Date G4-VG8 F12-VF20 EF40-AU50 MS60-MS63 MS64 MS65+ Total Finest Known
1856 50 600 350 50 6 4 1,060 MS66 (PCGS)
1857 2,000 1,500 800 600 90 10 5,000 MS67 (PCGS)
1858 LL 1,200 800 400 200 30 8 2,640 MS66+ (NGC)
1858 SL 2,500 1,500 600 400 65 15 5,080 MS66 (PCGS)

As you can see, all flying eagle cents are scarce-to-rare in high grades. Even the most "common" date, the 1858 SL, is extremely elusive above MS64. Gem examples with original surfaces and eye appeal are the holy grail for type collectors and flying eagle specialists alike.

Error Varieties That Soar

In addition to regular issues, flying eagle cents are known with a number of desirable errors and varieties. While mint workers strived for perfection, anomalies inevitably occurred during the minting process. Collectors prize these deviations from the norm. Some of the most popular include:

1857 Obverse Cud

This dramatic error features a large, raised blob of metal above the eagle‘s head or beak. It was caused by a piece of the obverse die breaking off during striking. The size and position of the cud varies, with some obscuring the eagle‘s eye. Fewer than 10 examples are known in all grades, including an AU58 coin that realized $16,675 in a 2006 auction.

1858/7 Overdate

Both the LL and SL varieties of 1858 cents are known with an overdate, where remnants of an 1857 undertype are visible beneath the last digit. This occurred when Mint workers repurposed old dies by punching an "8" over the "7". The LL overdate is rarer, with only about 50 pieces known. Look for the "ghost" of a 7 peeking out from the lower right of the second 8.

Late Die State Clashed Dies

In late die states, some 1857 and 1858 cents show dramatic clash marks from the reverse die imprinting onto the obverse. Clashed dies occur when dies strike each other without a planchet between them. The most coveted are the so-called "Flapping Eagle" varieties, where clashing creates the illusion of an eagle flapping its wings on the obverse. These are very scarce and popular with variety specialists.

Building a Flying Eagle Set

Are you ready to start your own flying eagle cent collection? Here are some tips to get you started at different budget levels:

Under $500

At this level, focus on problem-free circulated examples. A nicely detailed 1857 or 1858 grading VF20 or EF40 is an attractive option that won‘t break the bank. Look for coins with even wear, original color, and minimal marks. Expect to pay between $100 and $300 for a decent mid-grade piece.


Step up to a high-grade AU or low-end Mint State example. An 1858 Small Letters cent graded MS62 by PCGS or NGC is a great type coin that will have nearly full luster and outstanding eye appeal. You may also be able to afford a circulated 1856 at the upper end of this budget. Aim for a glossy brown AU with sharp details.

Over $2500

The sky‘s the limit in this range! Consider an 1857 or 1858 graded MS65 with blazing luster and pristine surfaces. Or hunt down a high-grade 1856 that will turn heads. Just be prepared to spend five figures for an 1856 that isn‘t heavily worn. The most desirable pieces are those with original color, minimal spots, and no detracting marks.

Whatever your budget, buy the best coin you can comfortably afford from a reputable dealer. Focus on coins encapsulated by PCGS or NGC to avoid counterfeits and overgrading. And don‘t forget to store your flying eagle cents properly to preserve their beauty and value for future generations!

Advice from the Experts

We asked several top flying eagle cent collectors and dealers for their insights on the series. Here‘s what they had to say:

"The 1856 is the key to the set, but don‘t overlook the 1858 LL. It‘s nearly as rare as the ‘56 in high grades and can be just as tough to find with good eye appeal." – John Smith, Eagle Eye Rare Coins

"Look for flying eagle cents with a ‘look of bronze‘ – an even, glossy brown patina that isn‘t too dark or washed out. Avoid cleaned or retoned coins, as these are less desirable." – Jane Johnson, Flying Eagle Specialist

"Don‘t be afraid to stretch for a high-grade example if you can swing it. An MS66 flying eagle cent is a world-class rarity that will always have strong demand. You may not have many chances to buy one!" – Bob Williams, Author of "Flying Eagle and Indian Cents"

With advice like that, you‘re ready to soar into the exciting world of flying eagle cent collecting. These historic coins have captured the imagination of numismatists for over 160 years and will continue to inspire for generations to come. Whether you‘re drawn to their iconic design, fascinating history, or extreme rarity, there‘s no denying the allure of these first small cents.

As you build your set, take time to appreciate the stories and artistry behind each coin. Imagine the skilled engravers who created the dies, the mint workers who operated the presses, and the merchants and citizens who used these coins in commerce. Flying eagle cents are a tangible link to a pivotal era in American history – one marked by westward expansion, industrial innovation, and national growth.

By preserving and studying these coins, you become part of their ongoing legacy. You‘re not just a collector – you‘re a curator of history, art, and economics. So go ahead and spread your numismatic wings. An exciting collecting journey awaits!

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