The United States one-cent coin (often called a penny, from the British coin of the same name) is a unit of currency equalling one-hundredth of a United States dollar. The cent's symbol is ¢. It has been the lowest-value physical unit of U.S. currency since the abolition of the half-cent in 1857.
The earliest one cent coins were large and made of copper. Their designs changed relatively often; there were three different types in 1793 alone, the Flowing Hair / Chain Cent, the Flowing Hair / Wreath Cent and the Liberty Cap Cent - the latter issued until 1796, after which came the Draped Bust type (1796 to 1807), the so-called Classic Head Cent (1808 to 1814) and the Coronet Cent, also known as Liberty Head (1816 - 1857).
By the early 1850s, the rising price of copper led the Mint of the United States to seek alternatives, including reducing the size of the cent and experimenting with compositions other than pure copper. The result was the Flying Eagle cent, the same diameter as the later Lincoln Cent but somewhat thicker and heavier, composed of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The Flying Eagle cent was struck in limited numbers as a pattern coin in 1856, then for circulation in 1857 and 1858. Like all earlier cents, it was struck at the Philadelphia Mint only.
The obverse design of an eagle in flight is based on that of the Gobrecht Dollar, struck in small quantities from 1836 to 1839. The wreath on the reverse is derived from the Type II gold dollar of 1854, and the three-dollar piece of the same year. It is composed of leaves of wheat, corn, cotton and tobacco, thus including produce associated with both the North and the South. The cotton leaves are sometimes said to be maple leaves; the two types are not dissimilar, and maple leaves are more widely known than cotton leaves. An ear of corn is also visible.
The Flying Eagle cent was issued in exchange for worn Spanish colonial silver coins, which until then had circulated widely in the United States but ceased to be legal tender with the Coinage Act of February 21, 1857 - which also discontinued the large cents and the half cent denomination and introduced the small cent. These small cents were also issued in exchange for the copper coins they had replaced.
By 1858 though, Mint authorities found the piece unsatisfactory in production. The high points on both sides of the coin (the eagle's head and the wreath) opposed each other, and it was difficult to get the design to be brought out fully in the tough copper-nickel alloy. Mint Engraver James B. Longacre, designer of the Flying Eagle cent, was instructed to develop alternative designs. He produced one, showing a slimmer eagle, which would not clash as much with the reverse wreath. Although this would have cured the production problem, the design was not liked. In 1858, the Mint tested new designs for the cent; between 60 and 100 sets of twelve pattern coins were struck, consisting of the standard Flying Eagle obverse, a "scrawny eagle" pattern, and the Indian Head design, mated with four different wreaths for the reverse. From these, the Indian Head design was finally selected and replaced the Flying Eagle in 1859 - initially also in copper-nickel, until 1864.
Flying Eagle coins had been issued in great numbers, to the point where they were so numerous that merchants had their money boxes full with cents only and started refusing them in payment (at that time, only precious metal coins were legal tender, so the cents were not legal tender). The surplus of cents was later relieved by the economic chaos engendered by the American Civil War, which began in 1861. At the end of that year, the banks stopped paying out gold, which thereafter commanded a premium over paper money. These greenbacks, beginning in the following year, were issued in large quantities by the federal government. Silver vanished from commerce in June 1862, as the price of that metal rose, leaving the cent the sole federal coin that had not entirely vanished from commerce through hoarding. The glut of cents had by then abated, as merchants had stored them away in quantity - one New York City floor collapsed beneath the load.
In the late 1860s and the 1870s, the Treasury Department initiated redemption programs to replace copper-nickel with the new bronze cents; thirteen million copper-nickel cents were retired by exchange for other base-metal coinage. By the 1880s, they were a rarity in circulation.