The History of the Lincoln Penny – Part 2: The War Years
By | December 19, 2017

The ubiquitous Lincoln one-cent coin holds the record as the longest running coin design in history. First released in 1909, it has been in continuous production for over 100 years with over 500 billion coins made.

In this, the second of three parts, we look at the coin’s journey through the turbulent years of World War II.

The Wheatie Goes to War

By the start of 1942, the US was fighting a war on two fronts. With tin and copper in high demand for munitions, other metallic and non-metallic compositions were considered for the Lincoln cent including glass and plastic. Most proved unsatisfactory for coining, lacking either the malleability or durability needed.

Meanwhile, the production of bronze copper/tin cents was cut back drastically when the supply of bronze blanks dwindled and was completely stopped in December 1942. That same month, Congress authorized the Treasury to change the composition of the cent for three years to accommodate the war needs.

Steeling for Battle

The first attempt at a wartime penny was a zinc-coated steel coin. Three problems were quickly apparent—the silvery cent looked too much like a dime when new, the steel coins were rejected by vending machines, and they quickly corroded in a damp environment, leaving spots and stains obscuring the coin’s surface.

A few suggestions were made to make the coin readily discernable from a dime including punching a hole in its center and darkening the blanks to make them more distinguishable, but neither proved feasible, so production of steel cents was suspended by the end of 1943.

Brass Replaces Bronze

Bronze, the metal used for cent coins before 1943, is an alloy of copper containing around 12% tin, and with tin in short supply, the Treasury switched to brass, a 95% copper alloy containing zinc instead of tin. The Treasury even suggested that spent brass shell casings could be melted down and repurposed for coins, although it’s doubtful that it happened except in rare circumstances such as ceremonial strikings.

The Steel Penny Disappears

Denying it publicly to prevent hoarding, the Treasury began quietly removing steel cents from circulation after the war. When the government finally admitted to the practice in 1959, steel cents had all but disappeared from circulation, although many remain in collectors’ hands.

Wartime Rarities

While steel cents are easy to come by, there are some oddities from the era that are highly valued. Most are what are called off-metal strikes, meaning a coin was struck in a metal inconsistent with the coin’s series. This typically happened during a transition when blanks, known as planchets, of the wrong metal were mixed into production. Legitimate examples are quite valuable, some going for a million dollars or more. But some are faked, too, so buyer beware. Here are a couple to look for:

  • 1943 bronze cents
    A few bronze blanks slipped into production during the switch to steel. About 40 are known, and all bring sizeable value, but the 1943-D is extremely rare. Only one is known to exist, and it sold for $1.7 million in 2010. Four 1943-S bronzes are known, and one sold for over $1 million
    Because of the value of these coins, they are also faked by plating 1943 steel coins with copper. Unfortunately, many of these coins were made as novelties and made it into circulation. Fakes are easy to detect, though, since steel is magnetic, and copper isn’t. Actual counterfeits have been made in China using copper blanks, as well, and these are hard to detect without expert examination. Another sleight-of-hand involves taking 1948 copper cents and altering the 8 to look like a 3, but the bottom of the 3 on genuine coins extends below the number 4 in the date, so this is usually easy to spot under close examination.
  • 1944 steel cents
    Another off-metal strike occurred when 1944 cents were mistakenly struck on steel planchets. Some were struck on US blanks, and some may have been accidentally struck on steel blanks intended for use in making coins for the Belgian government. About 75 1944 steel coins are known to survive, and a mint-state example sold for over $158,000 in 2013.
    Like the 1943 bronze cents, the 1944 steel coins have been widely faked by plating copper cents with zinc or altering the date on 1943 coins, so be careful if you want to buy one. Fortunately, these fakes are easy for an expert to spot.

The Lincoln cent returned to its pre-war bronze composition in 1946 and remained so until 1982 when the coin changed to copper-plated zinc, the composition still in use today.

Up next: The Lincoln Penny – Modern Coins: 1946-present

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