No Cents or Nonsense?

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
The Signal
Saturday, May 20, 2006

ecent news stories of rising metal prices, including zinc, may make the cent obsolete.
    In the past as metal prices rose, the U.S. Mint reacted by making the cent smaller or of different, cheaper materials. In 1856, when copper reached 16 cents per pound, the one-cent coin was worth a bit more for copper content than one cent. The Treasury responded by issuing a newer, smaller cent made of a copper-nickel alloy.
    This new metal composition reduced the cost of making one cent to about a half-cent per coin. However, as a result of the Civil War, it was obvious that even these coins (issued from 1857-64) were costing almost one cent to make. The next step was to reduce the size of the cent to 3.1 grams of 95-percent copper alloy. That alloy remained unchanged from 1864 to 1942.
    In 1943, due to wartime needs for copper (for ammunition casings), the Mint came out with a zinc-coated steel cent. That experiment failed, and by 1944, the Mint had resumed making the 95-percent copper alloy bronze cents.
    In 1974, the price of copper hit $1.50 a pound — which is the breaking point for making cents at a profit. The Treasury Department conducted various experiments with cheaper alloys and even minted several million experimental aluminum cents. After the 1974 Assay Commission examined the new coins, the Treasury was convinced by lobbyists for the vending machine industry (they had penny vending machines in those days) that these aluminum cents were too light to work in the machines, and that when brand new, they looked too much like dimes.
    All 1974 aluminum cents were called and melted. Aha, well — almost were recalled and melted. One was given to the Smithsonian Institution and 15 others "disappeared." One resurfaced last year and is valued at $100,000 — pending its status as a legitimate Mint issue.
    In addition, the Mint made several million copper-plated steel cents. These were unsatisfactory in terms of manufacture and the fact they were magnetic — again, a vending machine problem. All were shipped to be melted. Aha (again) — a few slightly melted specimens showed up a few years ago and were certified as genuine. Their status is still being resolved.
    In 1982, when copper again hit the $1.50-per-pound level, a new alloy, never before used in making coins, was adopted: the current copper-plated zinc cent.
    The first few years of issue, 1982-85, the copper tended to bubble and peel, making these years rather unattractive. The process of bonding the copper was perfected and the later issues are perfectly good-looking — for their first few years in circulation, at least.
    Now that zinc is approaching melt value, the next step is not to eliminate the cent, but perhaps to reduce the size of the cent of 2.5 grams to 2.25 grams or less. With 10 billion cents minted annually, that would save quite a few tons of zinc.
    The other choice is to reconsider making cents out of a brassy alloy of aluminum — since there are no more penny vending machines.
    The cent has economic value, though its days are numbered; it should last a few more decades, at least. The cent will disappear when the dollar shrinks in value to about half its present value. Then perhaps we will make two-cent coins, or even 2.5-cent coins.
    As a postscript, in 2009 a series of commemorative one-cent coins will be issued honoring Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. They are being made of 95 percent copper, as they were in Lincoln's last year of life.

    Dr. Sol Taylor of Sherman Oaks is president of the Society of Lincoln Cent Collectors and author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent. Click here for ordering information.