Flying Eagle Premiered Copper-Nickel Allow

Over the past few months there has been increasing concern voiced by U.S. Mint officials that the cost to make a cent piece exceeds the face value, despite the fact that the basic ingredient is zinc. The price of metals on the international market has gone up in the past few years, making both the cent and nickel endangered coins.

This is by no means the first time that rising metal prices have threatened the coinage of certain denominations. As early as the 1790s the infant Mint had to contend with the price of copper when setting the weights for the cent and half cent.

The old large cent was first struck in February 1793, but even before coinage began there were problems. The Mint act of April 1792 had established the cent weight at 264 grains (17.11 grams), but the rising price of copper forced Congress to lower this to 208 grains in January 1793. The respite was only temporary, however, as price increases in late 1795 forced the weight down to 168 grains. At this point, however, prices stabilized enough that the large cent remained physically unchanged until coinage ended in early 1857.

Even though the Mint continued to make a profit from copper coinage, the gradually rising price of copper over the decades caused some uneasiness. As early as 1837, Lewis Feuchtwanger produced some one and three-cent pieces made from German Silver (a combination of copper, nickel and zinc) and suggested to Congress and the Mint that his composition be used for the minor coinage. He failed, but did leave an idea that would later bear fruit.

As late as 1848, the price of copper was still low enough that New York City counterfeiters produced cents that bore a tolerable resemblance to the real thing. The rare small-date pieces from 1848 are believed to be from these New York operations. Mint officials were well aware of the scheme and corresponded with appropriate Federal officials to put an end to the unofficial “competition.”

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