Few coins are as easily recognizable as the 1943 Lincoln Cent, struck at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints in the midst of the Second World War. Rather than the familiar copper which had been used for the United States one cent denomination since its introduction, these coins were struck in zinc plated steel. The new composition was utilized in order to save copper for the war effort and was selected after various experiments took place both at the Mint and by private companies.
As early as July 1941 the Mint became aware of the growing shortage of copper due to America’s involvement in the War. With more than a billion cents struck at the three Mints that year, it was apparent that testing had to be done to find a suitable replacement for copper. Up to summer 1942 various forms of materials and forms of coins were proposed; among these were eccentric ideas such as paper coins (an idea soon abandoned as it was realized that the lifespan of coins made of paper was supposed to be very short) and coins with center holes (an idea actually proposed at various times in the 19th century but never introduced on regular coinage). When both the War department and the Bureau of the Mint could not come up with any reasonable ideas, external help was requested.
In August 1942 the Mint sought contact with various companies located in the Eastern United States, including glass, Bakelite, plastic and even firearms firms. They were to create a suitable product which was durable and easy to produce at a reasonable cost. As no genuine Mint dies could be used, Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock designed a fantasy piece, which was based on the Columbian 2 Centavo piece. The obverse design was similar, although the lettering had been replaced with English texts, being “Liberty/Justice” on the obverse. The wreath on the reverse was based on a 19th century medal and had the text “United/States/Mint” at the center. Production tests started at the various companies, of which three had reported receiving Bronze test pieces from the Mint, for comparison purposes.
Various materials are known to have survived up to the present day. These include various colors of plastic (now virtually all toned to brown) and Bakelite. All are extremely rare, but appear periodically at public auction and still sell at reasonable price levels. The most desirable of the test pieces are those which were struck at the Mint with official equipment. These include Bronze, Zinc and Zinc-Coated Steel pieces. It was the latter which was eventually selected, when both glass and plastic coins were abandoned due to various issues.
An article which appeared in the December 1975 ANA Magazine explained the reason why the glass pieces were not selected. Quoting from an interview with Mr. J.H. Lewis, President of the Blue Ridge Glass Company, one of the companies involved in the project:
According to Lewis the glass cents for production were to contain uranium oxide (the experimental pieces did not) as an anticounterfeing device; under ultraviolet light they would give of a fluorescent glow. But in 1942 the secret Manhattan project was begun, and the government could not afford to have uranium diverted away from the development of the atomic bomb.
Anderson also explained why the plastic coins were abandoned:
The plastic experiments came to naught when it developed that the only suitable plastics, urea and phenol had joined copper had joined copper and zinc on the list of critical materials.
And thus, by the end of 1942, with the war not appearing to be ending soon the Mint settled on steel coins coated with zinc. The latter was to prevent rusting, which helped, but not to the full extent. During the year, production of the 1943 Steel Lincoln Cents took place at the Philadelphia (Mintage: 684,628,670), Denver (Mintage: 217,660,000) and San Francisco (Mintage:191,550,000) Mints. Various problems occurred once the coins reached circulation and the ever critical public. First of all, since the rims of the coins were not coated in zinc, the coins did rust even from contact with human sweat. Secondly, freshly minted Steel cents gave the impression to be dimes at first, which created confusion. And finally, vending machines with magnets caused the coins to stick. Not a very favorable situation in the middle of a crisis.
With huge mintages, none of these coins are rare although high grade examples are scarce. Many Americans still find steel cents hidden away in drawers, and these pieces always attract some attention from non-numismatists, thanks to the unusual appearance of these pieces. Some are disappointed when they find out that average circulated examples are worth next to nothing, others, obviously are intrigued by their history and seek to find more. As such, these steel cents are fascinating conversation pieces, and perfect to teach others about history of the Second World War and its influence on American citizens. Because of the problems mentioned above, the composition was changed again in 1944, to a copper, tin & zinc composition, and the steel cent became a one-year type coin.