In this Coin History article, we take a look at a true one-off for the United States Mint: The 1943 Lincoln Cent. With the same Obverse and Reverse design since the coin’s introduction in 1909, the 1943 Cent was the only coin ever produced by the Mint in steel. The change in metal was one of necessity but it caused a fair number of challenges for the general public and the Mint itself.
By 1943, the United States was nearly two years into the global conflict of World War II. That meant that demand for raw materials for ammunition and equipment was at an all time high. This included copper, the main alloy used for the bronze Lincoln Cent from 1909 to 1942. Remember that bronze is essentially 88% copper. Feeling the pressure to get more copper for military needs, the United States Mint took on the project of trying to find a substitute for the Cent.
Experimenting in 1942 began with the Mint looking at a wide range of other metals as well as plastics to try to find a substitute for the Cent. In late ’42, it was decided that the Cent would be minted in steel. The coin would feature a zinc coating to protect the steel from rusting and production began in 1943.
Production of the Cent remind the same as it had in prior years. That it, they were struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco facilities.
The challenge with the new steel Cent were almost immediate. First, for the Mint, there were issues with the minting process. Bare in mind that steel is harder than bronze so harder dies (which wore out faster) and more pressure had to be exerted to produce the Cent. Because steel was used, the 1943 Cent was 13% lighter than previous Cents. It was also the only coin ever produced by the United States Mint that has 0% copper and was magnetic. Remember, even gold and silver coins have a small percentage of copper in them.
For the pubic, the issues with the steel cent were also measurable. When they came from the Mint, they were often mistaken for Dimes at first glance. This caused confusion not only for the general public, but for retailers too. Adding to this, magnets in vending machines often picked up these legitimate coins as slugs and would reject them. It didn’t take long for the outcry to begin and understandably so. The Mint quickly acted, developing a process whereby salvaged brass shell casings, along with a small amount of copper, produced an alloy that was very similar to pre-war composition. It satisfied the need to use less copper but also was close enough the bronze cents that the public was satisfied.
This augmented brass/copper alloy was used from 1944-1946 when the pre-war bronze composition returned.
Circulation of the 1943 steel Cent continued well into the 1950s and 1960s despite the Mint collecting a large number of them and destroying them. Fortunately however, for collectors plenty of these Cents remain available.
You can pick up a 3-coin set of the 1943 Lincoln Cent for $8.99 on Amazon in Uncirculated Condition. Modern Coin Mart has a NGC graded 1943 Cent at MS-66 for $60, a very reasonable price for this one-off coin.
To learn more about United States Coins, be sure to check out the Coin History series of articles here on US Coin News.