On December 7, 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was launched into WWII. As the war intensified, more resources were required to keep our military going. One of those resources was copper. The increased need of copper for military use, meant less of it for use in other areas of manufacturing, including coins. The result: The Steel Lincoln Wheat Cent.
In 1942, after several attempts at getting the public to turn in all their pennies, public law 77-815 was passed which allowed the use of metal substitutes for both the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel. The Lincoln cent, at the time, was made of a bronze alloy which consisted primarily of copper, around 12% tin and trace amounts of other metals. These substitutions were to last no longer than December 31st, 1946.
The first order of business was to halt the production of the Lincoln cent until a different metal could be found that would suffice. The winner: low-carbon steel coated with zinc. The zinc plating was added to prevent any rust.
Although now silver in color, the images and diameter of the coin remained the same. The only other difference was the weight. Because steel weighs less than copper, the coin went from the standard weight of just over 3 grams, to closer to 2.75 grams.
The Philadelphia mint was the first to produce the new steel cent on February 23, 1943, with Denver and San Francisco following the next month.
It didn’t take long for the public to start complaining. “They look like dimes!”, they said. Complaints poured into the treasury from all sides. Vending machine companies were upset because their machines mistook the new coins for slugs (counterfeits) because they were magnetic and underweight.
The Treasury Department definitely heard the complaints and by fall of 1943, they were back to the drawing board. This time they decided to use an alloy similar to the pre 1943 coins, minus the tin. In fact, most of the metal used came from the spent brass shell casings coming back from overseas. The public called these cents “shell-case cents” and they were better received than their counterparts. They were minted until 1946.
After the war, the Treasury recalled all the “steelies” in circulation and by the 1960’s, it was much harder to find them in circulation. A total of 1,093,838,670 steel cents were produced in 1943. After the recall, it is estimated that 930 million remained in circulation. It is not completely uncommon to find steel cents to this day.
From a collecting stand point, two interesting and highly valuable varieties were created during this time, both by accident. In 1943, when they started making steel cents, a few copper planchets were left in the presses, resulting in a copper/steel mix. These coins are darker in color because of the copper. Only 40 are thought to exist, with only 12 being known to the public. One sold in 2004, for $200,000.
A similar error occurred when the switch from steel alloy was made to the brass alloy. These 1944 Steel Cents are more silver in color and are also magnetic because of the steel. It is not known exactly how many were minted, but it is estimated to be fewer than the 1943 Copper cent error. One sold in 2008 for $373,350.
Although we do not have any of the error cents, we do have a lot of steel cents available on both our website and Ebay. While they are not the most beautiful or most practical coin, they represent a vital piece of American history. Consider adding some to your collection today!