The 1974 Aluminum Cent

In 1973 the United States Mint proposed an aluminum one-cent coin. It was to be composed of an alloy of aluminum and trace metals, and intended to replace the predominantly copper–zinc cent due to the rising costs of coin production in the traditional bronze alloy.

Of the 1,571,167 coins struck in anticipation of release, none were released into circulation. In an effort to gain acceptance for the new composition, the Mint distributed approximately three dozen examples to various members of the House Banking and Currency Committee and the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Nine congressmen and four senators received examples, along with some Treasury officials. Additional specimens were given out by then Mint Director Mary Brooks. Ultimately, the proposal was rejected in Congress, due mainly to the efforts of the copper-mining and vending machine industries, which felt the coins would cause mechanical problems. Opposition also came from pediatricians and pediatric radiologists who pointed out the radiodensity of the metal inside the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts was close to that of soft tissue, and therefore would be difficult to detect in X-ray imaging. In addition, the price of copper declined enough that making copper cents would again be economically viable, and conversely made hoarding pointless. The idea of changing the composition of the cent would not be explored again until the 1980s.

After the setback, the US Mint recalled the coins, but about 12 to 14 aluminum cents were never returned to the mint. No oversight, record keeping, or statement that the coins had to be returned was made by the US Mint as examples were handed out. When Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government law enforcement agencies were called in to investigate, however, some congressmen either feigned ignorance or completely denied getting examples. One left over coin was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, while another was alleged to have been found by a US Capitol Police Officer. A 1974-D specimen was found in January 2014 by Randall Lawrence, who said it was a retirement gift to his father, who worked at the Mint in Denver. Randall planned on selling it in a public auction, but the Mint demanded its return, saying that the coin was never authorized for release and therefore remains U.S. Government property. Lawrence (and his business partner at their coin store, Michael McConnell) ultimately surrendered the coin when the Mint showed that the aluminum cent had never been authorized to be struck in Denver, and there was no evidence that the coin had been a gift of any kind.

Why do Copper Coins Change Colors?

If you’re a coin collector or just happen to handle change a lot, you’ve probably seen old copper coins in various colors. From white to green to blue! Why do these coins take on so many different colors? One may think it’s because of something that got stuck to it, maybe a candy wrapper or some sticky food but these colors are actually naturally occurring!

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pile of various cull wheat cents

There are two common forms of attack upon these older metals. In the milder case, a metal may tarnish. “Tarnish” is a thin coating on the surface of a metal and is usually very uniform and does not often destroy the intended purpose of the metal. “Corrosion,” on the other hand, is often not uniform, but may cause pits and may reach such proportions as to destroy the metallic object so that it cannot be used for its intended purpose.

In dry air, even tarnishing takes place quite slowly; however, with the usual atmosphere around us, the humidity accelerates the tarnishing process. The lowest oxide level of copper is cuprous oxide, or cuprite. Its color is pink. Barely noticeable at first, a penny becomes darker over time due to the tarnish layer thickening, as well as the continued oxidation to the black cupric oxide, tenorite.

Over time, and upon repeated or prolonged exposure to moisture in the presence of dissolved acidic substances, such as carbon dioxide and the polluting substances found in acid rain, tarnished copper turns green. Among these acid substances are the oxides of sulfur and the oxides of nitrogen. Reacting with moisture, they form dilute solutions of strong acids.

Copper that is exposed to open air will corrode and undergo a series of chemical reactions that lead to the development of a patina – a coating of copper oxide molecules which actually protects the metal beneath. Over time, copper transitions from its shiny brown color to a darker brown shade.

After many years it transitions into blues. At an even later stage the formation of copper sulfate, carbonate and chloride salts in varying concentrations turns the surface green. There are several factors which affect the amount of time these processes take including moisture, temperature, and the level of pollution. The formation of the natural green patina seen on copper roofs and statues takes a very long time, but methods have been developed to speed the process up using chemical reactions.

Statue_of_Liberty_7Coins aren’t the only place we often see this chemical reaction take place; we’ve all seen the greenish blue Statue of Liberty, but did you know Lady Liberty was once a copper color? That’s right, the famous statue was once covered in a thin layer of copper and was bronze when she first arrived in the United States from France. Acid in rain covers the Statue of Liberty whenever storms hit New York, and her exposure to oxygen from being in the middle of the ocean gradually turned her blue over the years.

An Unusual Tradition Continues at This Grave


John Wilkes Booth is undoubtedly one of the most notorious names in American history. If you visit his grave, you’ll have to find it first. After shooting Lincoln and escaping to Northern Virginia, Booth was shot while trying to escape capture and his body brought back to Washington, DC, for confirmation of his identity. He was originally buried in the Old Penitentiary along with the two men who conspired with him. His body was exhumed in 1867 and re-buried in a Penitentiary warehouse. It was finally released to his family in 1869, who took the body to their own family plot for final burial.



20046526_10209637484474970_6772455346360581552_nHis family plot is easy to locate, but since the family believed a large headstone might be unseemly and attract unwanted attention, no one is quite sure which stone is his. Common tradition points to a small, unmarked stone, and over time, a tradition has developed. Visitors to the grave place a penny on top of the stone; if Lincoln’s portrait is face up, it designates support for Lincoln. A few occasional face-down pennies would indicate support of Booth. Coin collector William Davis recently visited the grave and took pictures of the coins present at the time.



19989648_10209637484434969_3293582512244474740_nIt’s likely that the tradition developed from the military custom of leaving coins on a soldier’s headstone. Different coins indicate different relationships to the soldier buried; some say the tradition goes back to the Vietnam War, but it can only be traced to the  2000s.



19959298_10209637486035009_852017781684380025_nIt’s almost certain that no one was leaving pennies at Booth’s grave before the early 1900’s, as the pennies did not bear Lincoln’s portrait until 1909, when the VDB design was introduced. However, it did arise organically, as folk traditions do, and is an excellent example of folklore and tradition in action in the contemporary world. (For another example of this, see our post about coin trees and the work of folklorist Ceri Houlbrook.)



However the traditions develop, humans have long used coins as offerings, luck charms, and wards against evil; it’s no surprise they would be used to send a message at a grave.



[All photos courtesy of William Davis and used by permission.]

Lucky Pennies and Passports for the Dead

Coins have been in use for thousands of years, so it’s no wonder that folklore has arisen about them.


In folklore, coins often have the ability to change fate or create good fortune: this power may be tied to the value of precious metals that most coins have been made of. Little to no folklore exists about base metal coins.



Most people are familiar with the legends of leprechauns, small mischievous folk with magical stores of gold. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, claimed that this gold came from “treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time.” Given the number of coin hoards dug up in the British Isles, this legend isn’t so far-fetched!



Wishing wells and fountains are some of the most innocuous–and widespread–folklore about coins. It’s possible that this practice dates back to pagan sacrificial traditions of gods or spirits living in wells and springs; an offering of precious metal brings about one’s desired outcome.





Mercury_dime.jpgSometimes the coins themselves are held to have special properties. The American “Mercury dime” is one of the favorites for “lucky” coins. ue in part to the silver in the coin, as well as its association with Mercy, the Roman god of games of chance and prestidigitation (though the image on the front of the coin is Liberty, not Mercury.) Mercury dimes struck in leap years during the 29-year run of the coin are considered particularly lucky, and the coin is often used as a hoodoo token and an aid to gamblers. It’s even been said to fight off evil; just punch a hole in the coin, thread a piece of red string through it, and tie it onto your ankle. If someone tries to curse someone wearing a silver dime, the dime will turn black and deflect the attack. If you suspect you’ve already been cursed, folklore suggests putting a silver dime under your tongue to detect the spell.


Many old household chores, such as churning butter, are said to be vulnerable to witchcraft, and can be protected by placing a silver dime in the area (under the churn, for instance.) Some say the coin must be heated and tossed into the churn; others think the “In God We Trust” motto is the efficacious aspect, though the motto only dates back to the 1860’s on coinage. (If this proves ineffective, the milk can be scalded in fire or whipped with sticks, inflicting pain on the evil person inflicting the curse.)



Some hold that pennies are luckier than dimes; the Indian Head cent is a special favorite for a “lucky penny.” A copper cent coin minted from 1859 to 1909 (when it was replaced by Lincoln cent), the Indian Head penny is considered especially powerful in folklore. Nailed around doors or windows, they are said to be able to keep unfriendly viewers away from one’s property.


Lee_Penny.gifCoins have also been said to be very powerful for purposes of healing. The famous Lee Penny, an Edward I groat obtained by Sir Simon Lockhart while on crusade in the Holy Land, is one of the most legendary healing coins. Set with a triangular red stone, the coin was exempted from the Church of Scotland’s ban on charms, and is said to cure rabies, bleeding, and other medical issues. During the reign of Charles I, it was borrowed by the citizens of Newscastle as protection against the plague. The charm is used by dipping the coin twice in water, with a final swirl; no words must be spoken during this process, lest the user be accused of sorcery. In the Appalachians, someone with a gift of healing are said to be able to rub a wart with a coin, then instruct the former wart-sufferer to spend the coin, giving away the wart in the process.




One of the more potent uses of coins in folklore is their use as “totenpässe,” passports of the dead. In many traditions, the dead must pay a price to enter the afterlife or be shut out forever as wandering spirits. Many funerary rites include placing coins on the eyes or in the mouths of the dead, so they can pay their fare and move on to the next world.




Whether you believe any of the tales or not, coin folklore is old, established, and here to stay. It’s something to think about the next time you stumble across a penny lying in your path.

The 1943 Steel Cent

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.

1943 Copper Cent

1943 Copper Cent

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.

1944 Steel Cent

1944 Steel Cent

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!

The V.D.B Controversy

On August 2, 1909 people began lining up to get their hands on the freshly minted Lincoln Cent that was to replace the Indian Head Cent.  There was such demand for this coin because it was the first American coin to feature a real historical person on its obverse, and Abraham Lincoln at that (see our previous blog “The Lincoln Wheat Cent”).  Three days after the coin’s release, it was pulled back off the presses amid controversy about the size of the artist’s initials on the reverse. Although no one really knows for sure what happened, there has been much speculation about this event.

From the day Victor David Brenner was tasked by President Roosevelt to redesign the penny, Chief Engraver Charles Barber had an issue.  Barber did not like the idea of working with an outsider who had nothing more than sculpting experience. Some say Barber was jealous because Brenner’s design was selected over his own.

In June of 1909, the final design was approved by both Barber and Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, including approval of the initials V.D.B along the bottom of the reverse.  In fact, Barber encouraged Brenner to include his initials and refused to let him use a more discrete “B” placed somewhere else.


The day of the coin’s release, rumors started circulating about the placement of the initials.  Some believe a jealous Barber went behind Brenner’s back and began accusing him of being too vain.  Because Brenner was paid for his work, he should not have felt the need to put his initials in such a prominent place on the coin, if at all.  Others have said it was the public that raised a fuss because the initials were simply too big.  Another group of people felt the whole discussion was ridiculous. Adding the artists initials to a coin was a long standing tradition, dating back to ancient Greece.  In fact, the latest gold piece designed by Augustus St. Gaudens and released in 1907 had his initials in the field, on the reverse.

Regardless of the facts, the coin was pulled off the presses on August 5th until a compromise could be struck. Either the initials could be removed all together, the V and D could be removed, simply leaving the B, or the V.D.B could be moved to a more discreet location.  Despite objection from Brenner, the first option was selected as Barber argued any of the other options would take much too long.

During the halt in production, rumor spread that the government was going to recall all the pennies with the V.D.B initials. This caused a bit of a craze as people began hoarding the already in demand coin.

On August 12, 1909 the Lincoln Cent hit the presses once again, this time with no initials, and by the end of the year, supply had finally caught up with demand.


Barber passed away in 1917 and the issue of the initials was revisited shortly there after.  In 1918, the initials V.D.B were restored to the coin, this time on the obverse, at the bottom of the Lincoln bust, near the rim of the coin.  They remain there to this day.


Not only did this controversy affect the general public, but the coin collecting community as well.  While there were 28 million 1909 V.D.B cents minted at the Philadelphia mint, there were only 484.000 minted in San Francisco.  These 1909 S V.D.B cents became very popular and still are, selling for several thousand dollars a piece in mint condition.

Image courtesy of CCF Numismatics [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of CCF Numismatics [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Check out all the Lincoln Wheat cents we have available on Ebay and our website and see if you can spot the 4 different varieties:

1909 V.D.B with no mint mark (minted in Philadelphia)

1909 S V.D.B (minted in San Fransisco-highly collectible)

1909-1917 with no initials

1918-1958 discrete V.D.B on the bottom of Lincoln’s bust

The Lincoln Wheat Cent

In 1787, the penny was created in response to the need for coinage that was uniquely American (see our previous blog).  Americans wanted to stray from the use of European coinage with its different appearance, weights and value.  Flash forward to the early 1900’s and we find ourselves in competition with European coinage once again.  The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, felt all US coins were lacking in their artistic qualities.  An avid art connoisseur, Roosevelt wanted US coins to more closely match the artistic flair of their European counterparts.

A recent law requiring all coin designs be in circulation for at least 25 years was in effect.  This meant the only coins up for redesign were the 4 gold pieces in use at the time and the penny.  Roosevelt hired his friend, Augustus St. Gaudens for the redesign.  Augustus favored a design with either an eagle in flight or lady liberty, but unfortunately passed away before any of his designs were submitted.  He did successfully redesign the $20 gold piece, called the double eagle (see below).

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After St. Gaudens’ death, Roosevelt turned to Victor David Brenner.  He admired a bronze plaque Brenner had done of Abraham Lincoln and although there had never been a US coin created with a historical figure on it, Roosevelt couldn’t resist capturing his fellow Republican on a coin.  It came as perfect timing, really.  America was about to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and Lincoln memorabilia was in high demand.  In January 1909, Brenner was officially hired for the redesign.


“Victor David Brenner” by Unknown – Harper’s Weekly, August 21, 1909, p. 24. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

In March 1909, satisfied with his design, Brenner met with mint chief engraver, Charles Barber.  Barber was less than impressed with the initial design.  Although artistic, it still had to be mint-able and that was Barber’s chief concern.  He also didn’t like the idea of outsourcing the job to someone who only had experience as a sculptor. After a lot of back and forth between Brenner, Barber and Mint Director Frank A. Leach, a design was finally agreed upon and the first Lincoln Cent hit the presses.

On August 2 1909, the first Lincoln cents were available to the public.  The coin had a profile view of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse with the words “In God We Trust” filling in the space above his head.  The reverse featured 2 wheat ears framing the words “One Cent” and “United States of America.”  On the very bottom of the reverse, were the initials V.D.B for the man who created the design.

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Because of the built up anticipation of this coin and the fact that it had Lincoln on it, the coin was wildly popular with the public. The day it was released, people stood in long lines at the various treasuries just waiting to get their hands on the freshly minted coins.  There was such demand that they ended up rationing the coins they handed out that day.  People in line at the New York Treasury could get up to 100 coins at a time and people at the Philadelphia Treasury were only allowed 2.  Many people then took these newly minted coins to the secondary market and ended up making a profit, selling them for up to 25 cents per coin in some areas.

The hype was short lived and things returned to normal in a matter of days.  That is until rumors started circulating that Victor David Brenner was trying to make a name for himself by putting his initials V.D.B on the back of the coin, in rather large printing.  The legality of this move was even called into question as some called it advertising, which is not allowed on coins.  All production was halted on August 5 until a new design could be made with out the initials.

Although a compromise was finally struck and minting started back up on  August 18, the controversy remained.  What started out as a simple attempt to make a pretty coin and keep up with the Europeans had turned into a rather ugly battle between artist and engraver.  Stay tuned to find out what the compromise looked like and how it affected the Lincoln cent in the weeks and months to come.

In the  meantime, check out all the wheat cents we have for sale with the controversial V.D.B initials still on them by checking out our Ebay store or website.

The Sense behind the Cent

The American Revolutionary war was officially ended by Congress on April 11, 1783. It is estimated that America had around 3 Million people in it at the time, all from various European countries.  All these people brought with them the culture and tradition from their native lands and the great melting pot was born.  Along with ideas and traditions came various units of trade.  If you could pop back to this time in American history, you would find coins from all over the world being used for trade.  Each coin had its own value, look and weight.  Imagine the confusion this would cause.  It was soon clear that this country needed its own unit of trade, one that was uniform and would be recognized by anyone.  And so the penny was born.

Designed by Benjamin Franklin, the first penny was called the fugio cent.  It was privately minted from 1787 to 1793 and made solely of copper.  The obverse featured the sun shining down on a sundial with the caption “fugio” (I fly or flee) on one side.  The bottom says “Mind your business”.  The reverse shows 13 interlocking rings meant to represent each of the 13 colonies with the words “we are one” in the center.


From here, a series of what we now call large cents were produced from 1793 to 1856.  Here is a list of the different large cent varieties they made:

Flowing Hair Cent (1793)

Liberty Cap Cent (1793-1797)

Draped Bust Cent (1796-1808)

Classic Head Cent (1808-1814)

Coronet Cent (1816-1857)

Matron Head Cent (1816-1839)

Braided Hair Cent (1839-1857)

No pennies were made in 1815 because of the war of 1812 and the shortage of copper that resulted.

By the mid 1800’s, these large cents were quickly becoming unpopular in commerce and expensive to mint.  These coins were large and became heavy to pack around.  Also, due to inflation, the price of copper started rising so that it was now costing more than 1 cent to make a penny. By 1850, pennies were no longer profitable to mint.



In 1856, the flying eagle cent came into circulation (pictured above).  This coin was much smaller than its counterpart and was made of only 88% copper.  The other 12% was nickel, which was a much more affordable metal.  To get these new “small cents”, people could exchange their large cents or other worn foreign silver.  So many flying eagle cents were made that they quickly overwhelmed the system.  They were not considered legal tender and therefore banks and other merchants did not have to accept the coins. Flying eagle cents were only minted for three years.  The eagle design did not strike well and it was replaced by the Indian head Cent (pictured below).

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The Indian head cent was minted from 1859-1909. Most of these coins were minted to pay union soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, in 1864, its composition was changed once again to be 95% copper and 5% zinc.  Also in this year the Coinage act of 1864 was passed.  This act made the one cent coin legal tender and now merchants and banks across the country had to accept them.

In 1909, to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday, the design on the penny was changed once again.  Commonly known as the wheat cent (pictured below), this coin featured a profile view of Lincoln on the obverse and a pair of wheat ears circling the words “one cent” on the reverse  Lincoln was the first historical figure to be used on a US coin and his picture remains on the penny to this day.

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Although its design has changed many times, the purpose of the cent remains the same. It was not only our first official coin, but it helped shape our nation.  Check out all the different cents we have for sale on Ebay and our website and stay tuned for more about the infamous wheat cent