The need to reduce both the size and intrinsic value of the cent was apparent from about 1850 onward. After several years of experimentation, small cents of a copper-nickel alloy were introduced in 1856. These bore the Flying Eagle from Christian Gobrecht’s silver dollars of 1836-39 paired with a simple wreath of a type used repeatedly by James B. Longacre for several denominations.
The 1856-dated cents are considered patterns, though ones that were extensively restruck over the next several years. The 1857-58 cents were issued in huge numbers for general circulation before this type was all too quickly retired. All three dates are quite popular with numismatists, and this brief series traditionally has been collected as a prefix to the Indian Head Cents that followed.
Numerous interesting varieties are known for the Eagle Cent. These include the very obvious Large Letters versus Small Letters varieties of 1858, two overdates and even a few die-clash mules.