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Cents copper no more
Copper content of cent, once 100%, now miniscule due to higher prices
posted 3/8/06

By William T. Gibbs


Collecting a compositional type set of U.S. 1-cent coins provides a tangible look at the changing nature of coinage, as the U.S. Mint reacted to public tastes and production and metallic supply issues.

Such a set could contain as few as nine cents, including a Late Date Coronet cent, made of pure copper, and a Flying Eagle cent of early Indian Head cent made of a copper-nickel alloy. (See the first part of this article in the March 13 issue of Coin World, Page 16).

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WITH THE WARTIME exceptions, all cents from mid-1864 through late 1962 were made of bronze, an alloy of copper, zinc and tin. The 1908 Indian Head cent will be a slightly expensive addition to the collection. Image courtesy of


Once it began striking the coins for circulation, the Mint found it difficult to work with the copper-nickel alloy used for the cent. Mint officials also had concerns about the sources for nickel (which had to be purchased from foreign sources, although a domestic mine was being readied by one of the chief nickel proponents). By late 1863, the Mint's director had identified a new composition recently introduced as a coinage alloy in France and England - bronze - as a preferred alternative to copper-nickel. Bronze is an alloy of copper, zinc and tin.

Although a bronze cent of the same diameter as the copper-nickel cent would lack an intrinsic value approaching its face value, Mint officials by this time had abandoned any effort to give the cent an intrinsic value, saying that the public merely wanted convenience in making small purchases.

The Mint went to Congress for authority to change the alloy of the cent from copper-nickel to 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc and tin (the tin represented about 1 percent of the alloy). Approval came in April 1864. The Mint had already produced 1864 Indian Head copper-nickel cents, but began making the new bronze cents as soon as planchets became available.

This composition provides collectors with more than a hundred different cents from which to choose, since bronze was used for the denomination until 1962 (with several exceptions to be discussed next), when tin was dropped from the alloy.

Late 19th century and 20th century Indian Head cents are available in lower Mint State grades for less than $100, and dozens of Lincoln cents exist in that composition in Mint State for a few dollars each. Since the remaining coins in the compositional set will all bear the Lincoln design, consider spending $25 to $100 on a nice Mint State Indian Head cent struck from 1898 to 1909.

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WARTIME METAL NEEDS led the Mint to drop all copper from the cent in 1943. This Mint State 1943 Lincoln cent is made of zinc-coated steel. The composition proved problematic.

Zinc-coated steel

America's entry into World War II with the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in December 1941 changed almost every facet of American life, including coinage.

Copper and nickel were critical war materials, and the Mint used tons of the metals every year in making cents and 5-cent coins (a new copper-nickel alloy, 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, was introduced in 1866 on the new base-metal 5-cent coin).

To free up supplies of the two metals for the war effort, the alloys of the cent and 5-cent coin were changed. The copper content of the 5-cent coin was reduced and nickel removed in its entirety in mid-1942.

A minor change was made also to the cent in mid-1942, but its major change was made in 1943.

Mint officials experimented with a number of compositions for the cent in 1942, letting private contractors do the work. A dozen or so compositions were tested outside the Mint with special dies. Among the tested materials were different formulas of glass and plastics, writes David Lange in The Complete Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Mint officials rejected the more unusual compositions as unsuitable and settled on a zinc-coated steel composition.

The Mint began striking Lincoln cents in the new zinc-coated steel composition in 1943. (A few lingering copper alloy planchets found their way between cent dies. Today these 1943 Lincoln copper cents are highly prized rarities worth thousands of dollars. Beware of copper-plated steel novelty pieces, which exist in the thousands and are numismatically worthless.)

The zinc-coated steel composition was used only in 1943. It was not a good choice for a coinage metal, with the steel subject to rusting.

Although the 1943 Lincoln zinc-coated steel cents seem unusual today and lead many noncollectors to think they have the rare version of the 1943 cent, the steel cents actually are very common. A Mint State example will cost no more than a few dollars.

Beware of buying a reprocessed steel cent, however. An industry of replating zinc-coated steel cents exists in an effort to make rusty cents look new again. Insist that a dealer sell you an original example rather than one of the processed ones.

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THE DANGERS OF shipping tin through waters patrolled by Japanese submarines led the Mint to drop the small amount of the metal (about 1 percent) from the alloy for a portion of 1942 and from 1944 through 1946.

Brass cents

Before introducing the steel cent in 1943, Mint officials received authority to make a minor adjustment to the composition in 1942. Tin was dropped during the year and the zinc content increased to 5 percent (it had been about 4 percent). Tin came from foreign sources and was shipped by sea, where shipping was threatened by Japanese submarine attacks.

Technically the alloy of copper and zinc is brass, although Mint officials generally refer to it as bronze. The tin-less 1942 Lincoln cents are indistinguishable from the bronze cents without expensive metallurgical testing.

When 1944 began, the Mint abandoned the zinc-coated steel composition and reintroduced the 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc alloy used for a time in 1942. The government began recycling spent brass cartridge casings from the war for use in making the cents of 1944 to 1946. For years, collectors called these "shell-case cents." The amount of copper needed for the cent coinage far outstripped the supply of shell casings and had to be supplanted by additional copper. Lange suggests that the use of the shell casings had more use as propaganda and morale boosting than any practical purpose.

The Lincoln cents of 1944 to 1946 are common, and Mint State examples are priced at $1 to $2, making them an inexpensive addition to your collection.

An alloy of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc and tin was resumed in 1947, but the amount of tin was reduced from 1 percent to about one-tenth of a percent, according to Lange. Congress granted the Mint authority to drop tin from the alloy in September 1962. It is possible that tin-less cents were struck in 1962 in addition to the millions of cents with tin struck for most of the year.

You will want to add any of the 1947 to 1961 Lincoln cents to your compositional cent collection as representative of the nearly tin-less alloy used (and it will only cost about $1). Since the post-1962 alloy is identical to the 1944 to 1946 alloy, you do not need to add any of those coins to your set, but could if you choose (again, the cost in Mint State is minimal).

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A NEW COMPOSITION was introduced in 1982: copper-plated zinc. The first examples, like this 1982 Lincoln cent, have pure zinc cores with pure copper plating. The Mint added a small amount of copper to the zinc core in 1984.

Copper-plated zinc

Between 1963 and 1982, on several occasions the price of copper rose to the point that the cost of making each cent approached its face value. Each occasion led to experiments in new compositions.

In 1973, the Mint made extensive tests of alternative metals. While "nonsense dies" - bearing designs that resemble coinage designs in theme but duplicated nothing in circulation - were used to test most of these alternative compositions, regular Lincoln cent dies were used to strike 1974-dated cents in aluminum and bronze-clad steel. A few 1975 Lincoln aluminum cents were struck as well.

A few of the 1974 Lincoln aluminum and bronze-clad steel cents are known in private hands, although Mint officials consider them illegal to own. No one has ever tested the United States Mint's legal authority by bringing an example of either experimental piece to market openly, although two grading services have certified a single 1974 Lincoln aluminum cent.

The upswing in copper prices in 1973 stopped and reversed, making it unnecessary for the Mint to change the composition at that time, at least immediately (Congress still gave the Treasury Department authority to change the cent alloy). However, a Treasury-funded study of U.S. coinage released in 1976 reported that the bronze cent's existence had to be re-evaluated (the study actually recommended the cent denomination be eliminated, a politically charged recommendation). Before the end of the decade, experiments began anew.

Testing of new compositions began in 1979, and in 1981, the Mint decided on a copper-plated zinc composition, to be introduced the next year. The Mint struck both compositions in 1982 during the transition. The Lincoln cent has been struck on a copper-plated zinc planchet ever since.

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THIS 1992-D Lincoln cent is typical of the pieces struck with the modified zinc-copper core.

The first copper-plated zinc cents were struck on planchets with a pure zinc core and plated with pure copper. However, the zinc quickly oxidized before the blanks were plated with the copper, resulting in poor bonding between the core and the plating (manifesting itself as bubbles in the plating). To fix the problem, the Mint added a small amount of copper to the zinc core in 1984; doing so improved the bond between the core and the plating.

The total composition of the current copper-plated zinc cent is 97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper. The core is now composed of 99.2 percent zinc 0.8 percent copper. The plating remains pure copper.

To complete your cent compositional type set, you will need two pieces: one of the 1982 or 1983 pieces with a pure zinc core, and one of the 1984 and later pieces with the zinc-copper core. Cost will be minimal, since the coins are common. Finding pristine examples of the 1982 and 1983 Lincoln copper-plated zinc cents might be a little difficult because of the early problems with the bonding of the copper to the core.

As you can see, building a compositional set of cents will offer you a small, easily completed collection. If the costs of the earlier pieces prove prohibitive for your budget, collect a Lincoln cent compositional subset instead for well under $20.

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