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The Switch to Copper Nickel
By Mike Thorne

Given the high regard today’s collectors have for large cents, it’s hard to imagine how out of favor they were by the time they were discontinued. As Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins puts it:

“As early as the 1840s, the Mint found that the large copper cents were increasingly unpopular. The coins stimulated adverse criticisms: ugly, too heavy, too often filthy. Many banks and stores refused them…; others would accept them only at a discount compared to silver or gold, quoting the same merchandise at different prices according to the kind of money tendered for payment.… Every 100 cents cost the Mint $1.06 to coin. Something had to be done, quickly.”

One answer would have been to make the coins out of something other than pure copper, and various metal alloys and coin shapes were suggested. For example, New York dentist Lewis Feuchtwanger touted “argentan,” also known as German silver, which contained copper, nickel, tin, antimony, and other metals. Naturally, Feuchtwanger said that he would be happy to supply the Mint with unlimited quantities of this alloy.

Another proposal came from Rep. Samuel Vinton, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Vinton’s suggestion was a ring-shaped cent made of billon, which is 90 percent copper and 10 percent silver. One reason for rejecting this proposal was that the cost of making the planchets and ejecting them after striking was considered too great for such a lowly denomination.

Joseph Wharton, owner of nickel mines, had another suggestion: the use of nickel in planchets for the cent. Given Wharton’s connections with the Mint, his thoughts were duly considered.

In 1856, Mint Director James Ross Snowden, not coincidentally a good friend of Wharton, chose an alloy of 88 percent copper, 12 percent nickel. This became the copper-nickel alloy comprising the first small cents.

For the design, Snowden used a modification of the 1836 Christian Gobrecht flying eagle image on the obverse, James Barton Longacre’s wreath on the reverse. According to Richard Snow, writing in A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents, Gobrecht’s flying eagle is reported to have been modeled after Peter, a real eagle and mascot at the Mint.

The reverse design was a copy of an agricultural wreath comprised of wheat, corn, cotton, and tobacco. It was “devised earlier by Longacre for use on the 1854 gold $1 and $3 coins.”

The famous 1856 Flying Eagle cent apparently came about as part of an effort to educate the public about the monumental change in the cent.

Accordingly, beginning in late November 1856, approximately 1,000 or more 1856-dated pattern Flying Eagle cents were struck for distribution to newspaper editors, congressmen, and others of influence, with some coins held in reserve for distribution to numismatists. Included in the dispersal were one to each senator and representative, four to President Franklin Pierce, about 200 to the Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures, and other pieces to Treasury Department officials. However, it seems apparent that any congressman who wanted a few extra pieces had no trouble getting them. Exactly how many promotional pieces of the 1856-dated Flying Eagle cent were struck in 1856 and early 1857 is not known, and it could have been far in excess of 1,000 coins.

This first batch of 1856 Flying Eagles were all circulation-strike specimens, meant to show the public just what they would see with the new cents. “The ‘advertising campaign’ was a success, and the Act of Feb. 21, 1857 was signed into law, making the copper-nickel Flying Eagle cent a reality.” Later production of 1856 Flying Eagle cents consisted of proof specimens, the idea being that “Proof was a better finish than Uncirculated (Mint State).” As to how many of these proofs were minted, a reasonable guess might be 1,500 to 2,500 pieces.

With so many 1856-dated Flying Eagle cents produced, it’s hard to call the issue rare. However, the coin’s popularity has made it an object of hoarding and has probably pushed the value higher than it ought to be given the number of specimens extant. As just one example of such a hoard, Breen notes that George W. Rice accumulated 756 of the date.

Values of the 1856 begin high and get higher. It’s worth $6,250 in Good-4, $9,000 in Fine-12, $12,850 in Extremely Fine-40, $16,500 in Mint State-60, and $65,000 in MS-65. In Proof-65, it lists for $28,500. Obviously, this is going to be an expensive proposition if you decide you just have to have one (and can afford it).

By the time the 1857 Flying Eagle cents made their debut, the demand for the new coins was enormous, prompting Mint Director Snowden to write to Treasury Secretary Guthrie: “We had on hand this morning $30,000 worth, that is 3,000,000 pieces. Nearly all of this amount will be paid out today. The coinage will go forward, however, at the rate of 100,000 or more pieces per day and the demand will be met as well as we can.”

The mintage figures alone testify to the success of the new small cent, as the total for the two years, 1857 and 1858, was more than 42 million. Large cents quickly became a relic of the past.

The Flying Eagle design had problems, however. If you’ve had any experience with Flying Eagle cents, you know that weakness on the eagle’s head and tail are the norm. According to Snow’s Guide Book, one suggestion was that the flying eagle be replaced with the head of Christopher Columbus.

Although this would certainly have been interesting, instead the eagle was replaced by Longacre’s Liberty with an Indian headdress. This became known as the Indian Head cent, with the first ones produced in 1859.

Actually, the 1859 Indian Head cent is a one-year type coin, as its reverse is different from the reverse found on later Indian Head cents. Its reverse carries over the wreath design from the Flying Eagle cents, whereas later Indian Heads have a wreath with a shield at the top.

Copper-nickel cents continued to be struck into 1864, with that year’s issues also including the new bronze cent. Thus, a set of all copper-nickel cents would consist of Flying Eagle cents dated 1857 and 1858 (the 1856 is technically a pattern issue, so is not usually included in the set; also, its high price keeps most collectors from obtaining one) and then Indian Head cents from 1859 through 1864. Let’s look at each issue individually in terms of its collectibility.

The mintage figure for the 1857 Flying Eagle cent is 17,450,000, with an additional mintage of 485 (or fewer, possibly as few as 50) proof specimens. Values, according to the August 2009 issue of Numismatic News “Coin Market,”range from $27.50 in G-4 to $3,500 in MS-65. A PR-65 lists for $29,000.

If you’re looking for big breaks in the values, these occur between VF-20 and EF-40 (from $47 to $125, respectively) and between MS-63 and MS-65 ($665 and $3,500, respectively). For the price conscious, the best value for a circulated 1857 is in the VF, whereas an MS-63 would appear to be the way to go if you want an uncirculated specimen and can’t afford the coin in MS-65.

Cherrypickers’ Guide, by Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton, list several doubled dies, repunched dates, and clashed dies for the date, but the 1857 variety that appears in major value guides is an overdate, 1858/7. Of course, this is also an 1858 variety.

In 1858, 24,600,000 cents were struck. Snow estimates that approximately half of these were the large letters variety, with the other half being the small letters variety. The easiest way to distinguish the two is to look at the letters in “AMERICA.” In the large letters version, the A is joined with the M, whereas the two letters are clearly separated in the small letters variety. Remember: large letters joined (LLJ) and small letters separated (SLS).

Values for the two varieties are similar, with a slight edge going to the large letters version. The range for the large letters 1858 is from $27.50 in G-4 to $3,850 in MS-65. In PR-65, the 1858 large letters and the 1858 small letters are worth $24,500 and $30,000, respectively. It’s hard to explain this in terms of mintage, as Snow estimates 100 for the former and 200 for the latter.

Snow estimates that 100,000 pieces were made of the 1858/7 overdate. This is one of those varieties that doesn’t interest me, as I would call it flyspeck collecting. By that, I mean that the diagnostic characteristics are visible only under magnification.

Fivaz and Stanton show photomacrographs illustrating three characteristics: a broken right wing of the eagle; a small, raised dot above the first 8 in the date; and a small portion of the top of the 7 above the second 8. Apparently, the only one of these characteristics that you can count on is the small, raised dot. Values range from $65 in G-4 to $60,000 in MS-65. Different die states (early vs. late) show different amounts of the diagnostics, with more being visible on early die states.

With a mintage of 36,400,000 (approximately 800 proofs), the 1859 Indian Head cent is both plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Values range from $13 in G-4 to $3,650 in MS-65 ($5,200 in PR-65). In circulated grades, the 1859 reaches $100 in EF-40, so a specimen in VF-20 at $48 would seem to be a good buy. As with the 1857, the MS-63 price appears relatively affordable at $610 compared to the MS-65 value. In terms of varieties, Fivaz and Stanton list three repunched dates.

More than 20.5 million Indian Head cents were minted in 1860, with the vast majority of them being the rounded bust variety. Snow estimates a mintage of 1,000,000 specimens with a pointed bust. As you would expect, the pointed bust variety is more expensive in all grades, with the differential being slightly less than twice as much in most grades.

For the rounded bust, values range from $11 in G-4 to $965 in MS-65. The estimated 1,000 proofs are all of this variety, which is worth $3,600 in PR-65. Prices for the pointed bust variety begin at $20 in G-4 and top out at a whopping $6,000 in MS-65.

With the lowest mintage of all the copper nickels at 10.1 million, values of the 1861 essentially track those of the pointed bust 1860 until the uncirculated grades are reached. Beginning at this point, the values are quite similar to those of the rounded bust 1860. Although Snow estimates the same proof mintage for the 1861 as the 1860, the PR-65 value is more than twice as much ($7,250). Fivaz and Stanton show only a repunched date for the 1861.

In 1862, more than 28 million small cents were minted, with an estimated 550 proofs. With this large mintage, values throughout the grade range are relatively low, ranging from $11 in G-4 to just $155 in MS-63. In MS-65, the value jumps to $1,050, and it’s $2,350 in PR-65. Fivaz and Stanton list a misplaced date variety (two digits rising from the denticles) and a double-die reverse variety. The authors note that this last variety is “presently very rare” and assign it values many times greater than those for a normal 1862.

More common still is the 1863 copper-nickel cent, with a mintage of nearly 50 million pieces (proof mintage about 460). In fact, the 1863 is so common that if you encounter a collection with only one copper-nickel cent, it’s likely to have this date.

As you would expect, values are low, beginning at $7.50 in G-4 and ending at $1,050 in MS-65. Like the 1862, the value is reasonable in MS-63, at only $165. Fivaz and Stanton list three varieties: a repunched date, a misplaced date, and a doubled-die reverse. In PR-65, the 1863 is worth $3,100.

Finally, we come to the 1864 copper nickel, not to be confused with the 1864 in bronze with a rounded bust, or the 1864 in bronze with a pointed bust (and also an “L”). The mintage of the copper nickel was 13,740,000 pieces, with an additional 370 or so proofs. Fivaz and Stanton list only one variety, a coin with strong die polishing above and through the ear. In the picture, the die polishing appears as several raised vertical lines.

Values for the “normal” 1864 copper nickel start at $16.50 in G-4 and top out at $1,350 in MS-65 (it’s worth $3,200 in PR-65). It’s well under $100 in VF-20 ($72) and is worth just $280 in MS-63, if you want an uncirculated specimen but can’t afford one in MS-65.

As I hope you’ve seen, copper-nickel cents form an interesting transition from the copper large cents to the bronze small cents. Except for the 1856 (and the proof issues), copper nickels are relatively inexpensive in most grades. They’re also plentiful enough that you won’t have any problem assembling this short set. Happy collecting.


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