U.S. Coins

Middle Ground

Published July 9, 2024 | 5 min read

By David McCarthy

Most numismatists agree that coin collecting in the United States became popular after the country abandoned the large cent in favor of the small cent in 1857. However, the story of the latter’s development is fascinating. Patterns (or proposed designs) struck at the Philadelphia Mint between 1850 and 1855 show what might have been. 

The Industrial Revolution increased copper demand, and large cents came under fire. In 1849 Ohio Congressman Samuel F. Vinton, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, drafted a bill calling for a reduction in the size of the cent. On March 13, 1850, the U.S. Mint struck its first small-size pattern, a ring cent made in billon (an alloy of 90-percent copper and 10-percent silver), copper, and silver. The mint discontinued these experiments in 1851.

In 1853 the mint revived attempts to reduce the cent’s size. The new composition utilized a mixture of nickel, copper, and zinc called German silver, as well as copper, copper-nickel, and billon. The earliest of these used the obverse die for a Liberty Head quarter eagle (gold $2½) along with a wreath on the reverse encircling ONE CENT (shown). By March 1854, newspapers around the United States began to report “a proposition to coin a new description of cent…of white metal.” The mint abandoned plans for these German-
silver cents by the middle of the year. 

In the second half of 1854, the mint shifted gears again. These new “medium cents” were around an inch in diameter and were made using dies resembling the large cent without stars encircling Liberty’s head. These patterns were made in large quantities—mostly in copper and bronze, but also in oroide, an alloy of copper and zinc or tin that bears a slight resemblance to gold. The press took great interest in these coins. On December 17, 1854, The New York Daily Herald reported:

The new cent pieces will be issued from the mint in the course of a few days. They are considerably smaller than the old cent pieces, and form a really beautiful and attractive copper coin. On one side is the head of Liberty, and thirteen stars being omitted, the surface is plain and polished. The reverse is the same in design as the old cent, but brighter and much more finished. There is a certain amount of alloy mixed with the copper, and the perfection of the die gives to the coin a finish and elegance that has never heretofore been attained in our copper coinage. The new coin will be universally welcomed as a needed and creditable improvement.

The Philadelphia Bulletin of December 27, 1854, was not so sanguine, complaining that the new coin would “undoubtedly tarnish as readily as the old copper” and that the designs were still “ugly.” Perhaps in response to this kind of criticism, beginning in late 1854 and into mid-1855, the mint struck a series of medium-cent patterns with a Flying Eagle motif like that found on Christian Gobrecht’s half-dollar patterns of the late 1830s. The mint struck these in various alloys, including copper, bronze, oroide, nickel, German silver, and copper-nickel. The composition was eventually used to make small cents in 1856-64.

One of these pieces, presumably struck in oroide, made its way to Virginia in late March. The Richmond Dispatch reported:

“One of the new cents was left at our office yesterday, by Mr. Sawyers, agent of Adams & Co. It is a very beautiful coin, and elevates brass very considerably in the scale of respectability. It is not improbable that while they are new and bright, some of these cents may be taken by persons in a hurry for eagles…”

By 1856 the mint produced a trio of Flying Eagle designs, including the version issued from 1856 to 1858. While these patterns can be quite expensive, many of the others mentioned here are available for less than $5,000 and represent a great historical value. (I’d like to thank Dennis Hengeveld for his insight into the 1854 cent patterns.)

A version of this article appears in the August 2024 issue of The Numismatist (money.org).