Jim Bisognani: The Frequent Flyer

Posted on 2/22/2024

The Coinage Act of 1857 introduced the Flying Eagle Cent, which was popular at the time but quickly fell out of circulation. So how did one end up in the yard of Jim's childhood home?

Upon glancing at my calendar on a sunny but cold February 21, I realized that on this date, 167 years ago, the Coinage Act of 1857 was established into law. I know, I am a coindexter as well as a history geek. For those who aren't acquainted with the significance of the law, I shall explain.

President Franklin Pierce (the only president born in my native New Hampshire, by the way) signed the Coinage Act of 1857 just two weeks before the end of his term. The law ended the status of foreign coins as legal tender and hastened their removal. In particular, this affected mostly foreign silver coins, primarily all Spanish and Mexican coins, which had been circulating freely and on par with US commerce until the law was passed. With its passage, foreign silver was to be turned in and exchanged for US silver coins.

Yet, the most exciting numismatic element here is that the law provided for the minting of the new copper-nickel Flying Eagle small cent, too. The older large cooper "cartwheel" cents and half cents that had been in circulation since 1793 — along with the foreign silver coins — were to be exchanged for this new copper-nickel or white cent Flying Eagle.

Although the full removal of foreign silver would take decades, the excitement of exchanging the large copper cents and half cents for these smaller Flying Eagles made this part of the exchange more immediate. These large cents were, of course, large and quite heavy. Considering their limited buying power and the rising cost to produce them, the coins had become relatively unpopular in commerce. After all, it was much more convenient to have 10 small "white cents" in your pocket than to tote around 10 copper "cartwheels," each bordering the size and heft of a half dollar for transactions.

An article in the February 7, 1857, Harper's Weekly newsletter helped fuel the "Flyer Fire" amidst the public and collector scene of the day:

"You see for yourselves the patriotic design — the wreath entwined with the vine and Indian corn on the one side and that everlasting American eagle ‘spreading its wings and soaring aloft’ on the other side...

Provided the act of Congress, which establishes the new cent, becomes a law, which it has not yet, we think the public will be a gainer by the new coin. Its smaller size makes it much more convenient for handling and less burdensome for transportation, while the neater look and the freedom from the ‘brassy’ odor renders it much more acceptable to fastidious delicacy. Ladies may now venture to touch with their ungloved fingers small change without being like Lady Macbeth, unable to wash out with Cologne, or any other toilet detersive, the ‘damned spot’ of a base contamination."

The following cartoons were in the Harper's Weekly dated February 21, 1857, which coincided with the day the new law was signed. The old Large Cent is in tears as Mother Liberty is rocking the Flying Eagle baby, and the not-so-easy removal of foreign silver.

Click images to enlarge.

The Big Day

In preparation for the great exchange, the Philadelphia Mint constructed a temporary "exchange structure" in the courtyard of the Mint facility. As the new Flying Eagle Cent went public on May 25, 1857, it was literally the talk of the town. The morning of the release, hundreds of people gathered in a sprawling queue, anxious to exchange not only Spanish silver for the new cents, but also bringing in copper Large Cents and half cents.

The onslaught began at 9 a.m. as clerks from the Mint doled out the new cents for the old coinage. Not surprisingly, it was reported that "early birds" in line were "scalping" the new Flyers at a premium. Mint Director James Ross Snowden noted, "The demand for them is enormous... We had on hand this morning $30,000 worth — that is three million pieces — and nearly all of that amount will be paid out today."

Although the Philadelphia Mint had difficulty in striking the new and harder coin, it was able to produce a record (at the time) 17,450,000 white cents in 1857.

Then, around the time of its release, the public also became aware of the rare 1856 Flying Eagle coins. Searching began in earnest for that coveted date by the public at large in their pocket change and places of business. Even at a time when coin collecting wasn't a "big thing," within a few years, the 1856 Flyers were selling for as much as $2 per coin.

Click images to enlarge.

The short-lived Flying Eagle Cent series is, of course, headlined by the wildly popular 1856 Flying Eagle Cent, which, although is technically a pattern, is collected along with the 1857 and 1858 issues. Unfortunately, as the Mint had recurring problems in delivering coins exhibiting full detail and strike, 1858 was the last year for the series. But what a beautiful and still inspiring coin it is.

Now, it's time for a little story of my own regarding the Flying Eagle. I have only owned one example, and you might say it "flew" into my hands.

The Frequent Flyer

I've always admired the simplicity of the Flying Eagle Cent, that soaring majestic bird on the obverse and reverse dominated by a wreath of corn, wheat, cotton and tobacco. As a pre-teen collector, it was on my wish list. To date, I've only owned one Flying Eagle Cent, which is pictured below.

Click images to enlarge.

This particular coin, I actually unearthed around my childhood home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when I was 13 years old. I recall that it was mid-June and my summer vacation of 1970 was a few weeks underway.

I was busy pulling up some overgrown weeds along our home's foundation and clearing away winter debris, which had built up around the side of our house and the pathway between the house and our somewhat dilapidated garage. Just to mow the grass was going to be a huge effort, as the rocks and weeds seemed endless. With a small shovel in hand, I began to dig around and pull up the deeper-rooted weeds that I wasn't able to eradicate by gloved hand alone. About an hour in, I spied something other than rocks in my latest shovel full.

I could see that it was a coin, although covered and crusted over in dark topsoil. I was careful to just wipe away the dirt with my fingers until I saw some of the hidden design emerging. I remember my eyes seemed to bulge as I saw elements of the Flying Eagle Cent in my hand! I immediately started praying that it was an 1856 but, alas, it was from the inaugural year, 1857. But the year 1857 means just as much, because I recall saying to myself that it was minted 100 years before I was born.

Considering that the coin is in overall Fine Plus condition, it obviously circulated quite heavily. How it found its way between the foundation of the house and the garage is anyone's guess. I'm just glad that I still have that coin today.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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