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From the April 2002 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:


Do You Have A Medium Cent In Your Collection?

By Mike Nourse  


     Say what? Well, what else do you call a cent that is 25 Ĺ millimeters in diameter when small cents are 19 millimeters and large cents are 28 millimeters? Donít feel bad if you are not familiar with the medium cents as they were only produced in pattern form and never made it into regular production.

     By the end of the decade of the 1840ís a movement was afoot to find an alternative to the clumsy, heavy large cents, which happen to be larger and heavier than the current Sacagawea dollar. Because coinage at that time needed to have a metal value somewhat close to the face value to be acceptable to the general public, something more than just shrinking the cent had to be done to keep the metal value near one cent. The solution was an alloy of 90% copper and 10% silver called billon. The inclusion of this little bit of silver allowed the cent to be reduced to about 1/6th of the weight of the all copper large cent and still contain nearly one cent of metal. The mint went ahead and produced an assortment of small 18 millimeter patterns in 1850 and 1851, most of which are ring shaped.

     The billon idea did not survive past 1851, and was permanently shelved as far as alloys being considered for the one cent piece are concerned. The smaller cent idea was put on hold during 1852 but experimentation resumed in 1853. By this time, the ring shaped cent idea had also been scrapped in favor of the traditional un-holed shape. So, for 1853, billon was out and German silver was in. German silver actually contains no silver at all; it is an alloy composed of varying amounts of nickel, copper, and tin. Because nickel was worth more than copper at the time, it was possible to greatly reduce the size and weight of the cent and still retain nearly a full cent worth of metal. The few 1853 patterns were again approximately 18 millimeters in diameter, and this time they used a coronet quarter eagle die for the obverse and a wreath for the reverse. A very few of the 1853 patterns just have a reverse strike with a blank obverse.

     Our travels through time have now brought us to the year 1854, where we now get to meet our heroes, the medium cents! By now, the idea of using billon as a coinage metal for the cent had been shelved. Thus, the only hope of making a smaller one cent piece with anything approaching a full centís worth of metal was to use the German silver alloy mentioned above. However, mint director James Snowden was convinced by now that the best alternative was to simply reduce the size of the cent and continue making it out of plain copper even though this smaller cent would not contain a full centís worth of copper. He cited the minor coinage of France as an example of underweight coinage being acceptable to the public in the case of low denomination coins.

     In 1854, there was only one pattern made suing the German silver alloy; all the rest were plain old copper or bronze, and featured interesting (though somewhat familiar) designs and a 25 1/2 millimeter (or one inch) diameter. The first of these patterns had the same Liberty head as was found on the large cents of the 1850ís, though obviously smaller, with just a date below and no stars surrounding the Liberty head. The reverse was very similar to the large cent of the day, only smaller, and the wreath was a bit scrawny in comparison.

     The other 1854 pattern cent in copper had a flying eagle obverse combined with a wreath reverse. The obverse flying eagle is quite similar to that of the flying eagle cent we are all familiar with that was in regular production in 1857 and 1858. The only really noticeable difference is that the eagle on these patterns has a somewhat downward sloping neck, besides being quite a bit larger. Other than that, there are stars around the outside edge of the obverse rather than the name of our country, which appeared on the reverse. Many people who were collectors in the 1970ís and early 1980ís may remember that these pattern medium cents were popularized by a company called Foothill Coins (now Valley View) that advertised on the back page of Coin World at the time. They would show a picture of an 1854 medium cent pattern, describing it as our first flying eagle cent, and noting that it is quite a bit more rare, though less expensive, than the 1856 pattern flying eagle small cent which is sometimes collected alongside the 1857 and 1858 flying eagle cents.

     The year 1855 was the second and final year of medium cent production. Only one design was used this year, with minute variations, and that was the flying eagle design with the wreath reverse. Like the 1854 pattern medium cents, the 1855ís are reasonably available, and come on the market with some frequency. The three major designs of medium cents, the 1854 Liberty head, the 1854 flying eagle, and the 1855 flying eagle, each exist to the extent of about 100 to 200 pieces each. Remember that there are at least ten times as many 1856 flying eagle small cents in existence. Each of these three categories contains several different Judd (or Pollock) numbers due to slight variations in design or metal content.

     The medium cent was doomed by a return to the idea of having approximately one centís worth of metal in our one cent piece. The medium cents had less than 6/10ths of a cent of copper, which was too little. Nickel was expensive enough in those days that it was possible to have a small cent containing 12% nickel and 88% copper be worth nearly one cent as long as it was kind of thick. The rest, as they say, is history, and our small white cents of 1856 through 1864 were born.

     A neat four coin display could be made showing the stages of transformation of the cent. A regular issue large cent from the early 1850ís would begin the display, followed by an 1854 medium cent, which has a very similar design on a smaller, lighter planchet. Next would be an 1855 medium flying eagle cent to show the evolution of the design away from the Liberty head toward the flying eagle. The last piece in the four coin set would be a regular issue flying eagle cent from either 1857 or 1858 to show the final step down in size from the large cents to medium cents to small cents.

     A medium cent would be an interesting addition to any copper collection. Either one of the two major designs, the Liberty head or the flying eagle, will illustrate the transition from large cents to small cents. Of course, like any patterns, these are quite expensive, starting at just over $1000, and going up from there as the condition improves. You will then have a very scarce coin that will capture the attention of other collectors at your next club meeting!


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