The Switch to Copper Nickel
By Mike Thorne
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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