By Bullion Shark LLC ……
The year 1943 found the United States getting more deeply involved in World War II with overseas deployments. At home, there was the completion of the Pentagon building in Virginia, and air raid practices at night, and rationing of food and gasoline. Driven largely by the ramp-up in industrial and military production for the war, the U.S. economy heated up and unemployment dropped to less than 2%.
Cash was plentiful at the time, which led to inflation and lost purchasing power. In this economic environment, the demand for circulating coinage like pennies soared, and the market for rare coins heated up too with investors looking for ways to make the best use of their assets.
At the same time, materials like copper and tin were critical materials for armaments production and needed to be conserved, especially with supplies from Japan cut-off. Thus, the penny’s composition of 95% copper, 4% zinc, and 1% tin had to be changed. Seven companies received government commissions to experiment with various metals and substances that might be able to substitute. They tried various colors of plastic, fiber, zinc, white metal, and tempered glass.
Eventually, the Mint settled on steel coated with .00025 inches of zinc (to prevent the steel from rusting) and without tin for the new material to make pennies. It was estimated that making cents of this material could save 100,000 pounds of tin per year, and the stock of 40,000 pounds of tin the Mint had on hand at the time was sent to the defense industries.
1943 Steel Penny
The new steel pennies, which came to be called “steelies”, were authorized by a 1942 law, Public Law 815, signed into law on December 18, 1945. Production of 1943 steel pennies began in February of that year, and by the end of the year over a billion of these coins had been made, including 684,628,670 at the Philadelphia Mint; 217,660,000 at the Denver Mint; and 191,550,000 at the San Francisco Mint. In addition, steelies were lighter at 2.7 grams than the prior copper cents at 3.11 grams. This and the fact that steel is magnetic makes it easy to spot a fake steel cent.
A nice Mint State set of the three 1943 steel cents can be had for $30, while an even nicer graded MS65 set runs $75
But soon after the release of steelies into circulation, the coins tarnished and develop spots quickly, making them appear unattractive. Some coin-operated vending machines did not accept the steel coins, and some people confused them for dimes because of their similar color. The Mint considered punching a hole in the center to make it obvious that they weren’t dimes.
The steel cents, which have since acquired legendary status for American collectors because they look so different from any other wheat pennies and are well-known outside of the hobby, were viewed as a failure at the time. This was also related to the fact that the steel material was difficult to work with when producing the coins.
In December 1943 Treasury Secretary D.W. Bell announced that as of January 1, 1944, the steel composition cents would no longer be made, and the coins would return to their prior composition. Although copper and tin were still needed for the war effort, the switch back to mostly copper cents was accomplished when the War Production Board announced that the necessary copper could be obtained from fired brass cartridge cases. These small cartridge cases had been recovered from firing ranges and other training areas.
1943 Steel Penny Value
The majority of examples of 1943 steel pennies are in circulated condition and have developed a lot of spots and tarnish. These are worth less than a dollar, but nice Mint State coins are also available.
In MS60 they are worth $7; $15 in MS63; and $28 in MS65. At the higher-end, MS67 coins command $150 and MS68 examples command $2,250. Of the over 12,000 1943 steel cents graded MS60 or above, only 75 are in MS68.
1942-D coins have similar values as the 1943 (P), but the 1943-S (the lowest mintage of the trio) is worth a bit more. This is mainly for the two highest grades with MS67 worth $240 and MS68 $4,250.
1943 Copper Penny
By far the rarest Lincoln cents are the 20 to 30 struck mistakenly on copper planchets in 1943, including the unique 1943-D that sold in 2010 for $1.7 million and the others being 1943 (P) and 1943-D coins. PCGS has graded seven of what it estimates to be 10-15 of the Philadelphia coins and four of what it estimates to be five of the San Francisco issue. It is believed these coins were created when copper planchets for 1942 cents were accidentally left in hoppers and then struck with 1943 dies.
The record price for a 1943 copper (aka bronze) cent is $329,000 in 2015 for an AU55BN coin. The PCGS price estimate for these coins is $200,000-300,000.
As for the 1943-S, the record is $282,000 in 2016 for an AU58BN. PCGS estimates the price for coins in high circulated grades at $275,000-350,000 but $1 million for an MS62. That is based on the unique coin of that grade from the Bob Simpson collection that sold in 2013.
1943 Wheat Pennies
Many people today pay no attention to the cents they receive in change, including some collectors. But 1943 wheat pennies are a great example of why it pays to look at your coins. A collector named Manuel Houston found a 1943 (P) steel penny in the 1960s when he was a young boy that, unlike his other steel pennies from that year, was not magnetic. Years later he looked into why his coin looked like regular steel cents but was different from them.
He had it graded, but NGC did not perform a metallurgical analysis, which was later done by a company that determined the coin was made of 85.5% tin, 8.5% antimony, 5.5% copper, a small amount of vanadium, and traces of other elements, as Manuel explains in an article in the September 2020 issue of The Numismatist magazine. This coin is believed to be the only one of its kind, and despite being in damaged condition it sold earlier this year at auction for over $5,000.
It is not known whether the coin is an error or perhaps one of the experimental planchets made when the Mint was considering various materials for 1943 pennies. Numismatic researcher Roger Burdette has said it could have gotten mixed in with zinc-coated steel planchets or created some other way.
Who knows what other rare pennies may be out there?