The U.S. Mint has been around almost as long as the United States itself and has since produced all coinage for circulation in the United States and for other countries as well. Sanctioned by an act of Congress, the first U.S. Mint facility was opened 1792, in Philadelphia. It was not long before the westward movement of settlers forced the mint to expand to serve the nation, creating four additional mint facilities. Located in San Francisco, California; Fort Knox, Kentucky; West Point, New York; and Denver, Colorado, these new mints allowed production to keep up with demand and for simplified distribution and storage.
The United States Mint has produced many coins over their long and venerable history that have since become collector’s items, but few coins caused more initial public excitement than the Flying Eagle Penny. This fascinating coin was minted for a very short period of time but now enjoys extreme popularity among collectors largely due to its engrossing backstory. Produced just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, these coins represent an interesting period in U.S. history. Let us examine the many facets of the popularity of the Flying Eagle cent.
History of the Flying Eagle Penny
The one-cent coin, colloquially called a penny, was the first official U.S. coin ever struck at the United States Mint in Philadelphia in 1793. Those coins bear scant resemblance to the pennies we know because they were larger than the U.S. quarters in circulation today! It is easy to understand why these coins are generally referred to as “large cents.” Originally, pennies were made of pure Copper, but by the mid-1800s pure Copper coins were prohibitively expensive to produce. The mint began striking smaller pennies composed of Copper alloyed with another type of metal, such as Silver. An interesting note: at that time, Gold and Silver were the only metals accepted as official legal tender, so there was a great deal of opposition to the establishment of a penny coin.
Just prior to 1856, Mint Director James Snowden proposed a design for a much smaller penny. After extensive debate, these coins were authorized as legal tender in both the House and the Senate. At the same time, foreign Gold and Silver coins, which most people still utilized as general currency, would no longer be accepted as legal tender in the United States. Flying Eagle Pennies were at last produced in April 1857 and launched into circulation barely a month later.
Flying Eagle Penny Design
The design of the Flying Eagle Penny was the brainchild of U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James Longacre, though the artwork was not unfamiliar. Adapted from the design of the Gobrecht Dollar, circulated between 1836 and 1839, the obverse of the Flying Eagle Penny depicts an American bald eagle in midflight. Folklore tells us Gobrecht’s original design was inspired by an eagle named Peter, who was unusually sociable with humans and liked to be fed by U.S. Mint workers throughout the 1830s.
Even though Longacre did not conceive of the design from scratch, it is still widely revered by collectors and coin experts everywhere. Aside from the bold flying eagle on the coin’s obverse, the Flying Eagle Penny is a relatively plain coin. Accompanying the eagle on the obverse is an inscription of “United States of America” and the mintage year. The coin’s reverse artwork is also simple, featuring the one-cent face value within a pretty, understated wreath. A reeded texture encircles both faces of the coin, but overall the artwork as well and the design aesthetic are restrained.
Flying Eagle Penny Values
Shortly after its brilliant introduction, the Flying Eagle design encountered production problems due to the cent’s metal composition and the placement of decorative elements. The coin was quickly discontinued and replaced by the Indian Head Penny. As the Flying Eagle cents were in production for a remarkably short time, it is easy to understand why they are so popular among collectors. There is a finite supply of these coins in existence and most of those pieces are in poor shape. The coin art is in itself another draw for collectors. Many coin experts believe the Flying Eagle Penny was the first coin to ever feature a bird in flight. Most often, birds depicted on coins all over the world appeared as part of a historic shield or crest. Many credit the Flying Eagle Penny as the beginning of using coin art to showcase animals in a natural way rather than in a regal, unrealistic style. Today, the Flying Eagle Penny is not easy to find or acquire. These coins are rare, and it is even rarer to find one in a well-preserved condition. Pennies were used to pay for a wide variety of goods and services and often circulated to the point of destruction. Those who do find them snap them up, because the fascinating stories surrounding this coin makes them irresistible to anyone compiling a collection of U.S. coins with an eye to preserving history. A Flying Eagle Penny may well become the showpiece of your coin collection.