The one cent coin was the first official coin struck by the United States Mint in 1793, but by the 1840s, it was an increasingly unpopular denomination. Because the copper cents contained no gold or silver and were not legal tender for trade, many merchants would not accept them or only accepted them at a discount. These “large cents,” produced until 1857, were indeed large and awkward – modeled after the British pennies, they were about the same size of a modern-day Susan B Anthony or Sacagawea dollar.
By 1850, the US Mint did not particularly like striking the large cents, either. With increases in the price of copper, it often cost the Mint more than a dollar to produce one dollar’s worth of pennies. A provision authorizing a smaller (and thus cheaper-to-manufacture) cent was part of the 1851 legislation which authorized the three-cent piece, but the provision was ultimately removed.
Throughout the early 1850s, the Mint was producing experimental “small cents” that could potentially replace the large cent. In his 1854 annual report, Mint Director James Ross Snowden advocated for bronze coins as a replacement. But the Treasury was reportedly under pressure from industrialist Joseph Wharton, owner of the country’s largest nickel mining company and namesake of the Wharton School, to incorporate nickel into the new cent. In July 1856, Snowden officially proposed an 88% copper, 12% nickel composition. Snowden asked the Mint’s Chief Engraver, James B. Longacre, to prepare a design incorporating the “flying eagle” reverse design of the 1836-39 Gobrecht dollar.
Even before the legislation passed Congress, Snowden had a number of the new cents produced. At least 634 of these 1856 small cents – possibly much more – were distributed to President Franklin Pierce and members of Congress in an effort to gain support for the pending legislation which would officially authorize the new small cent. At this time in the Mint’s history, it was somewhat common for Mint employees to produce their own unauthorized restrikes of discontinued coins. For example, many Gobrecht dollars were produced during Snowden’s tenure as Mint Director, and he even sanctioned the sale of unauthorized coins for the purposes of building the Mint’s own coin collection. As a result, many more 1856 Flying Eagle cents were produced for sale after 1856. Though it is technically a pattern coin, as it was not produced for circulation under the Congressional authorization, the 1856 cent is typically included in the series by collectors and is the most difficult coin in the series to obtain.
Legislation authorizing the new small cent finally passed Congress in February 1857. This legislation also eliminated the half cent coin. Further, the same legislation ended the legal tender status of foreign gold and silver coins, though Spanish dollars (worn examples were popular in circulation throughout the early United States) could be exchanged at face value for the new cents. So many Spanish dollars were turned in, and so many small cents were issued in return, that there was quickly a glut of the new cents. Merchants often refused the new cents in transactions just as they had refused the old large cents, and this persisted until the economic panic of the Civil War led to the hoarding of all coinage – even pennies.
The Flying Eagle design did not strike well and was replaced by the Indian Head cent design in 1859. The cent was made less thick over the years, and while modern pennies are the same diameter as the Flying Eagle cent, they are much thinner.