By David W. Lange – Research Director, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
A number of years ago, I purchased a strip of webbing for 1943 steel cents. “Webbing” is the US Mint’s term for punched-out planchet strips.
When a strip of coin metal is run through the punching press it comes out with a tightly spaced series of holes. This waste strip can be melted and reused, if the metal is sufficiently malleable, but that was evidently not the case with steel cent strip, as we shall see.
First, however, let’s take a look at the coins that resulted from this operation.
As early as 1941 the US Mint was aware of the danger it faced in running out of sufficient metals for cent production. World War II had begun two years earlier, and the mintage of all coins rose dramatically in response to increased production.
The cents coined since 1864 consisted of 95% copper alloyed with zinc and tin. Zinc was mined domestically and was in abundant supply.
In contrast, most tin was imported, and supplies had been interrupted by the war.
It was determined that cents could continue to be struck by omitting tin, and the Treasury Department so ordered on January 23, 1942. The existing supply of cent planchets was used up within a few months, and the cents of 1942 are visually indistinguishable as to whether or not they contain tin.
And even though there were rich copper mines within the United States, the demand for this metal by war-related industries was given a higher priority than coinage. Passed on December 18, 1942, Public Law 77-518 included an authorization to change the composition of the cent. The US Mint was thus tasked with finding a new composition that would eliminate copper from it.
Anticipating this action, the Mint had already contracted with several manufacturers to develop a suitable composition that would not include copper, and the result was an extensive series of cent-sized tokens coined with nonsense dies provided by the Mint. Among the materials made into pseudocents for testing purposes were hard rubber, fiberboard, glass and an assortment of durable plastics. For a variety of reasons none of these proved acceptable.
Ultimately the Mint decided upon a more conventional composition of low-carbon steel plated with zinc. Production began at the Philadelphia Mint on February 23, 1943, while the Denver and San Francisco Mints joined in the following month. Aside from a few pieces coined in the pre-war composition by accident, all United States cents dated 1943 were made from the wartime substitute. When new they were shiny and silvery, often being mistaken for dimes. When worn they became quite dull, especially once the thin veneer of zinc had worn away. In either case they failed to work in turnstiles and vending machines, due both to their low weight and their iron content, which made them magnetic.
Bronze cents, sans tin, returned in 1944, some of the copper used being retrieved from spent shell casings.
Steel cents remained in circulation in ever diminishing numbers through the early 1960s. The Treasury had begun withdrawing them as early as 1949, and it continued this program until 1960 by simply not re-issuing any pieces that made their way to federal reserve banks. The retrieved coins were then shipped to commercial smelters for destruction. When I took over my older brother’s Lincoln cent collection in 1965, it contained the 1943(P) and 1943-S steel cents, both of them dark and dull. I never did find a single steel cent on my own, as they were gone from circulation by then.
This brings us back to the steel cent webbing in my collection. Sold by the mints as scrap material, it never occurred to anyone at the time that it would have collector value. In researching my book, The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents, I came across an advertisement in the July 1960 issue of The Numismatist offering these punched strips in six-inch long segments. The price was $5 postpaid, and the seller indicated that he had around 750 pieces available! A recent exchange on one of the coin collecting message boards supplied additional information as to how some of these came into the market.
Retired professional numismatist Tom De Lorey wrote that the Denver Mint had sold its strips (which were about several feet long in their original form) to a builder who was constructing wartime housing for workers. With good plywood in short supply, the builder was reinforcing the roofs of these houses with steel webbing. When the houses’ roofs were being replaced in the 1960s, the strips came to light at the very height of popular coin collecting. Though rusted, they found ready buyers in the hobby.
Mint error dealer Fred Weinberg then added an anecdote told to him by Leo and Gary Young about how some of the San Francisco Mint’s webbing came to market. The mint was simply dumping the scrap metal into the bay! At least one of the workers saw a practical use for it and took some home to his wife who used the strips as “gopher guards” in her garden by driving them into the ground. This wouldn’t account for all of the small strips known today, but it does demonstrate that the mints saw no value in the material and disposed of it legally as scrap metal.
David W. Lange’s column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).
Steel Lincoln Cents Currently Available on eBay