Dr. Sol Taylor

The 1974 Aluminum Cents

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, November 17, 2007

ost Americans are unaware that in 1974, when copper prices peaked at about $1.50 a pound, the Mint was fully prepared to replace the bronze alloy cent with aluminum cents. In fact, the Philadelphia Mint did strike nearly 1.5 million such coins dated 1974.
    The cover coin of Flynn & Wexler's book on Lincoln Cents features the only known lawfully owned specimen, in the Smithsonian. Kevin Flynn devoted several pages just to this coin as he had the privilege to examine it at length and under magnification. He also discovered that it was a doubled die.
    As to the genesis of this enigmatic coin: After congressional hearings in 1973, the House Banking Committee heard testimony from various experts, and the ones representing the vending machine industry (which back then had millions of one-cent vending machines) pointing out the aluminum cents would not function in their machines, and that they would too easily be confused with dimes (as were the 1943 steel cents in 1943).
    The already minted aluminum cents were destroyed except for a handful that had been distributed to various members of Congress and other officials.
    The 1974 Assay Commission had a dozen specimens to examine in February 1974, and according to commission member Charles Colver, they looked perfectly OK for general use. Mint Director Mary Brooks recovered all of these coins when the Assay Commission finished its two-day duty. However, recovery of a few other coins was a vexing issue.
    Author David Ganz, an attorney and former American Numismatic Association president, wrote about this experimental coinage in the April 2001 edition of the ANA’s monthly journal, "The Numismatist." The story of the 1974 cent made news several times over the years, including in an interview with former Mint Director Brooks (in Chapter 5 of my book, "The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent").
    A "Numismatic News" story of Feb. 20, 2001, told of one of the missing 1974 aluminum cents being found. ANA Governor Alan Herbert featured a photograph of the coin, which was reportedly found by a congressional policeman who had offered to return it to the congressman who apparently dropped it on the floor. The officer was told, "Keep it."
    Various investigations at the time showed that some 12 to 15 of the coins were unaccounted for. They are still regarded as unlawful to own or sell.
    Ganz made a formal inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the Department of the Treasury regarding the aluminum cents. Some 27 pages of documents showed up. One document dated July 1990 from Dr. George F. Hunter, the assistant director of the Mint, indicated that 11 of the coins were missing, out of the 1.5 million that had been minted. He indicated the Mint would authenticate any of the missing coins, but that the Secret Service would take "appropriate action" — i.e., confiscate them.
    The coins were conceived in July 1973 and produced that fall. The 1974-dated coins were a closely guarded secret.
    Those involved expected Congress to approve the new coinage and figured this experimental batch would blend in with regular-issue aluminum cents that were issued and dated 1974.
    But Congress did not approve the new coinage, and the Mint was ordered to destroy all of them. Since some were outstanding, Brooks had the awkward job of urging members of Congress and their staffs to search their files and return the missing coins. A memo of Sept. 9, 1975, stated that 15 such coins were outstanding and must be returned to the Mint.
    As the years passed, the FBI got involved and managed to recover five of the missing coins. That left at least 10 unaccounted for — but the actual number is not known.
    Ganz argued that the Mint, in the past, allowed experimental coins to pass into collectors' hands, such as the 1913 Liberty head nickel, King Farouk’s 1933 double eagle, and a few of the $4 gold Stellas dated 1879 and 1880. During World War II, several experimental materials were used to make one-cent models and given to various manufacturers for testing purposes. None has been recalled, and a few show up now and then at major auctions. His conclusion — as a numismatic author and an attorney — is that the status of the one coin that surfaced in 2001 is very possibly lawful, as it was a gift. As Ganz concludes, "Only time and the courts will tell."
    Readers should be alert to any 1974 cents that appear to be white metal being offered for sale. Chances of such coins being real are zero. Aluminum cents weigh about 1.7 grams, while 1974 bronze cents we 3.1 grams. It is likely there are aluminum- (or even chrome-) plated 1974 cents showing up at flea markets, online auctions, and swap meets.

    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.