What Is a 1943 Steel Cent and Why Were They Made?
The 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent was the result of the United States Mint’s efforts to conserve strategically important metals during World War II by replacing the copper used in cent production with zinc-plated steel. The appearance of these steel cents is markedly different from that of the typical copper penny, making this one-year coin a favorite amongst coin collectors and those that collect interesting novelty items.
To understand why these coins were made, one must understand the pressures that the United States was under to manufacture sufficient weapons and munitions to wage global war against the Axis. As the continental U.S. had not been subject to the kind of daily bombardment that befell our European allies, America’s industrial might was charged with not only supplying the American military but also the militaries of England, Russia, and more.
In order to do this, the United States needed to conserve its mineral resources. The Roosevelt Administration understood this, and even before Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, an analysis of America’s mining output revealed that the government would need to explore striking coins from alternate metals in order to better use nickel and copper.
Experiments to Find A Solution to the Wartime Copper Shortage
Starting in 1941 and continuing into late 1942, the Philadelphia Mint and the branch mints at Denver and San Francisco carried out a series of experiments to find a suitable short-term replacement for the bronze alloy used to strike the cent. Private companies like DuPont, Monsanto, the Blue Ridge Glass Corporation, and Tennessee Eastman were contracted to carry out their own experiments, as well. The Federal Government learned much about alternative planchet compositions in a process that yielded a number of strange and impractical pattern coins, many of which are quite rare today.
By the fall of 1942, the Mint had narrowed its exeperimental focus to zinc-plated steel. Chemist Henry Brown is credited with developing the zinc finish. On December 18, 1942, Congress passed legislation authorizing the Mint to produce one-cent coins out of alternate materials and in January, the Mint released a two-page document outlining the specifications for the steel cent. These specifications called for the use of common SAE1010 steel with a thin electroplated layer of zinc to slow down the rust to which the steel was susceptible.
Production of the 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent began on February 27, 1943 and continued to the end of the calendar year.
The Changing Appearance of the 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent
When new, zinc-coated steel cents have a bright white appearance. Given their similarity in size and appearance, it’s not unlikely that the 1943 steel cent was sometimes mistaken for a dime upon its release. This confusion would not have been an enduring concern, however, as these coins lose this initial appearance after some exposure to the elements. Circulated 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents often exhibit a dull, dark, or mottled appearance caused by the break down of the thin zinc layer and the onset of rust on the steel planchet.
While unusual as a one-year only issue, coin collectors are interested only in bright white uncirculated coins. Unfortunately, some coins sold in the mass market have been re-plated so as to appear new. These coins are fairly easy to detect, as their surfaces lack original mint luster and look to be “dipped” in a silver coating or “painted over”.
Not All 1943 Lincoln Cents Were Struck on Zinc-Plated Steel (Oops!)
While it was the Mint’s intention to strike cents only on zinc-plated steel planchets in 1943, not quite two dozen coins struck on unused bronze planchets were produced. These coins are major rarities and have a fascinating story to tell.
Similarly, some unused steel planchets were also used in manufacturing 1944 cents (at all three Mint facilities) after the transition back to a bronze composition. The 1944 steel cents are indeed quite rare, but they don’t have the cachet of the 1943 coppers.
For years, the unsuspecting have been deceived by copper-coated steel 1943 cents – though a simple magnet test easily exposes the fakes. More sophisticated counterfeits have been made on genuine copper cents of other dates or on copper blanks. In a presumed instance of a “good marketing idea gone bad”, a New York coin company plated 5,000 steel cents with copper in the early 1960s and released them into circulation. For several months afterward, dealers received calls from those believing they had found a true rarity.
The 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent: A Popularly Collected Coin with Some Value
Being such an unusual coin, the 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent was saved in large quantities. Fresh coins with attractive surfaces in high uncirculated grades are typically traded after being certified by a third-party grading service like CAC, NGC, or PCGS. In Gem Mint State grades, these coins sell for about $30 USD each. It is worth noting that this is also roughly the cost of having the coin graded.
In Superb Gem grades of MS67 or MS68, 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents trade at auction for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
Charmy Harker Discusses the 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent
The iconic portrait of beloved 16th president Abraham Lincoln faces right. Wrapping around the inside of the rim, above Lincoln’s head is the inscription IN GOD WE TRUST. To the left of the Lincoln’s portrait is LIBERTY, and to the right and slightly lower is the date. Lincoln Wheat cents were minted at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Coins struck at the Philadelphia Mint bare no mintmark, but D and S mintmarks appear below the date on coins struck at the two branch mints. Cents produced for 1918 and subsequent years have the designer’s initials V.D.B. on the bottom bevel of Lincoln’s shoulder.
The reverse has a prominent display of the denomination ONE CENT at the top center, each word on a separate line, and below that UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in two lines. E PLURIBUS UNUM, with a center dot between the words, arcs along the top inside a raised rim. To both the left and the right of the center text, and curved to follow the rim, are stylized images of the seed head of wheat, called “wheat ears” by many, and the source for the type name.
The edge of all Lincoln cents is plain or smooth, without reeding or edge lettering.
|Lincoln Wheat Cent|
|Year Of Issue:||1943|
|Mintage (Circulation):||High – 684,628,670 (1943); Low – 191,550,000 (1943-S)|
|Mintage (Proof):||None Known|
|Alloy:||Low-carbon steel coated with 0.005″ layer of zinc|
|OBV Designer||Victor D. Brenner|
|REV Designer||Victor D. Brenner|
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Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.
Burdette, Roger. United States Pattern & Experimental Pieces of WW-II. Seneca Mills Press.
Feigenbaum, David Lawrence and John Feigenbaum. The Complete Guide to Certified Barber Coinage. DLRC Press.
Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.
Lange, David W. The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents. Zyrus Press.
Yeoman, R.S and Kenneth Bressett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
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