By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com …..
Searching through $25 worth of penny rolls is like going on a treasure hunt right from the comfort of your own home. For $25, you can pick up a box of 2,500 pennies from your bank and dive in on the pursuit of finding Lincoln wheat cents, Indian Head cents, unusual (sometimes rare) die varieties, and much more. And that’s exactly what I did recently, curious to see what I would find.
Though I was hopeful that I’d stumble across some valuable pennies, I didn’t have many expectations going in because I’d heard from other collectors that roll searching is a hit-or-miss sort of thing. I’d even experienced this for myself while going through rolls of coins. You might find an Indian Head cent, a couple dozen Lincoln wheat cents, or maybe a few interesting die varieties (such as a doubled die or repunched mintmark), all in a single box of pennies. Or you might get skunked and find virtually nothing of numismatic value.
While I didn’t have any thousand-dollar discoveries this time around, I did make some worthwhile finds while going through my box. So, what did I find? Here goes…
What I Found… and What I Didn’t
I eagerly anticipated diving into this box of pennies, particularly since my previous attempt was a complete and utter failure (I wound up getting a box of nothing but shiny new 2016 Lincoln cents). So I was quite happy when I opened up this box and found older Lincoln Memorial cents at the ends of almost all of the 50 crimped paper rolls.
I tore through the first three or four rolls pretty quickly, stumbling upon a well-circulated 1946 (Philadelphia) Lincoln wheat cent by the time I finished searching through only the second roll. I found 12 wheat cents among all 2,500 pennies, which averages out to about one wheat cent for every 208 coins.
But hey, that was actually a better average than my last major round of penny roll searching, when out of 20 rolls (1,000 one-cent coins) I found four wheat cents, or just one out of every 250 pennies. Both averages are slightly worse than I encountered while roll searching in the mid-1990s. According to my personal notes, I was finding one wheat cent out of every 125 pennies (or about two for every five rolls) back then.
The oldest of the wheat cents from this latest box of one-cent coins was from 1926. Among the other wheat cent finds were a 1936 cent, a 1941 cent, a 1944-D, a corroded 1945-D penny, the previously mentioned 1946, a 1951-D cent, one from 1953, a 1954-D, and three 1958-D pennies. The porous, red-colored 1945-D cent apparently had seen a harder life than the other specimens, which exhibited worn but otherwise pleasing surfaces hued in various shades of medium to dark brown.
Seven Canadian cents also found their way into this box of pennies. Among these coins from the Great White North was a 1955 penny with Mary Gillick’s portrait depicting an effigy of Her Majesty the Queen when Elizabeth was just 26 years old. I carefully inspected the 1955 Canadian cent for any signs of the scarce and popular No Shoulder Fold variety.
The “shoulder fold” refers to a gown fold over Her Majesty’s right shoulder on the original dies but did not strike up properly on early Queen Elizabeth II cents. The die variety stems from late 1953, the first year the Canadian cent bore an obverse portrait of the Queen following her 1952 coronation. The gown fold, represented by two lines on the gown, was strengthened on the Queen’s previously barer-looking obverse portrait.
This design enhancement became standard by 1954, though it is found on some proof-like cents from 1954 and a small number of business strikes from 1955. While my 1955 cent was of the more common With Shoulder Fold variety, it was worth taking a second look anyhow. The 1955 error variety is worth about $120 USD in a grade of Fine-12, according to A Guide Book of Canadian Coins and Tokens, 1st Edition by James A. Haxby (Whitman, 2012).
The other Canadian cents I found in this box of pennies included specimens from 1966, 1977, 1982, 1997, and 1998. I also found an 1867-1967 Canadian Confederation commemorative cent featuring a rock dove on the reverse – my first such circulation find.
Among the other coins that turned up were a rather paltry number of 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial cents. I found only nine, with an inexplicably disproportionate seven of these representing the Formative Years motif (Lincoln sitting on a log while reading a book). This is one of four designs from the circulation-issued commemorative series honoring the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1809. I also found one Birthplace (log cabin) cent and one Presidency (Capitol building) cent.
I presume the relatively small number of 2009 cents – the least-represented date in the box for any penny from 1982 or later – owes to the millions of folks, intrigued by the special Bicentennial designs, who pulled 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial cents from circulation. Contrary to what many non-collectors may think, none of the regular-issue 2009 cents is worth any more in circulated condition than ordinary Lincoln Memorial cents or Lincoln Shield cents.
Other highlights from this box of pennies were the whopping 336 copper-based Lincoln Memorial cents dated from 1959 to 1981. This period begins with the first year of the Lincoln Memorial reverse subtype in 1959 and concludes with 1981 as the last full year a traditional, copper-based composition was used for circulation-strike Lincoln cents. There were two variations on the copper-based composition, including the 95 percent copper, five percent tin and zinc bronze composition used from 1959 through 1962 and the 95 percent copper, five percent zinc brass motif employed from 1962 through mid-1982.
Upon initial inspection, none of the copper-based cents exhibited any of the major varieties collectors commonly look for among earlier Lincoln Memorial cents, including the 1969-S doubled die and 1972 doubled die. However, I did happen to find six no-question Full Red Uncirculated specimens, including a 1963-D, 1970, 1970-D, 1972, 1978-D, and 1981.
The primary purpose for saving these pre-1982 Lincoln Memorial cents is to capitalize on their copper bullion value, which at present is worth roughly two cents per coin. The important caveat is it is presently illegal to melt Lincoln cents, so for now collectors can only trade these coins for their copper value merely on a speculative basis, with buyers stocking up now in case the cent-melting laws someday change in the United States.
While I don’t want to focus too much on what I didn’t find, it’s important to note that I didn’t find any Indian Head cents in this box. It’s a coin I have yet to pull from circulation, even after a full quarter century of actively searching through rolls and pocket change.
The search continues…
Dividing Brass from Zinc
What did I do with the 47 transitional pennies I found from 1982, representing the year the United States began minting one-cent coins from a zinc-based composition? I saved them and tested each one to determine its composition.
A scale that measures objects to the nearest tenth of a gram would have made that job swift and easy, especially given the weight differences between brass and zinc 1982 cents. Copper 1982 pennies weigh 3.11 grams; zinc 1982 cents come in at just 2.5 grams.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a scale to screen those 1982 pennies. So I did the next best thing – I subjected each 1982 penny to the “drop” test that Lincoln cent expert Chuck Daughtrey taught me in 2015 when I wrote a CoinWeek article profiling 1982 Lincoln cents.
What’s the “drop test”, you ask?
It’s a virtually foolproof method for checking whether your 1982 Lincoln cents are made from mainly copper or zinc. Simply drop each of your 1982 pennies on a hard surface, such as a tabletop or kitchen counter. But don’t drop the coins from too high… you don’t want to damage the coin or the hard surface!
If, upon impact, the 1982 penny lets loose a small ring (like a tiny bell would), then it’s 95 percent copper. If it merely clicks or thuds (hits the surface with no ringing sound), it’s a zinc cent. Of all the 1982 pennies I found while searching through this box, only eight checked out as zinc. The rest – 39 of 47 – verified as copper. While nearly two-thirds of the original 1982 cent mintage was copper-based cents, this still seemed like an unusually high number of copper cents from any given year – definitely more than any other copper-era date I found in this box.
I reason the situation this way: many people know pre-1982 cents contain copper and hoard them for this reason, but most of these folks may not know how to check 1982 pennies for their metallic composition and therefore likely don’t bother saving them. Meanwhile, zinc cents, which are notorious for corrosion issues and other problems relating to their metallic composition, may not be surviving as long in circulation as their copper-based counterparts. Thus, collectors theoretically arrive at a situation where there are probably significantly greater numbers of brass 1982 cents in circulation than copper-based cents from earlier years.
Whether this is true or not is something I can’t really conclude from searching through just one box of pennies. Nevertheless, I suggest keeping an eye out for 1982 cents and testing them for the presence of copper. Don’t forget, there are seven mainstream varieties of 1982 business-strike cents and some two dozen in total when counting doubled dies and other anomalies. Some of these varieties are quite valuable, such as the 1982 reverse doubled die zinc small-date cent, which is worth potentially $15,000 in Red Brilliant Uncirculated. Talk about a “pretty penny”!
It’s All About the Zinc Cents
The vast majority of the pennies in this box were of the zinc-based composition variety. Technically, two of the Canadian cents were also zinc, as the Royal Canadian Mint replaced the denomination’s formerly 98 percent copper, two percent tin and zinc metallic makeup with a 98.4 percent zinc, 1.6 percent copper (plating) composition in 1997 (according to the Guide Book of Canadian Coins and Tokens). All told for this box, 2,120 pennies were zinc-based, and these coins break down by category in the following way:
- 1,266 – Circulated/”Brown” Lincoln Memorial cents, 1983-2008
- 807 – Union Shield reverse Lincoln cents from 2010 to the present
- 28 – Red Brilliant Uncirculated Lincoln Memorial cents from 1983 to 2000
- 9 – 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial cents
- 8 – 1982 zinc Lincoln Memorial cents
- 2 – Canadian cents from the Royal Canadian Mint’s zinc cent era (1997-2003)
There were no obvious major errors or unusual die varieties among these 2,100+ zinc cents, making for a generally ho-hum box of pennies. Perhaps the most exciting finds among the 1983-2008 zinc Lincoln cents were a few dozen specimens that were nice-looking Brilliant Uncirculated pieces. I saved those with dates ranging from 1983 through 2000, foregoing the later specimens mainly for space and storage reasons.
Going through this box of pennies and observing a couple thousand zinc Lincoln cents all in one fell swoop helped me to realize that they are, for the most part, aging very poorly. Most, and I really mean most (no exaggeration), were discolored, corroded or otherwise aesthetically unsightly.
Even many representatives of the Lincoln Shield cent series – a subtype that is presently seven years old – are already degrading rapidly. Many of them were splotchy, porous, discolored, or otherwise appearing repulsively older and more timeworn than their relatively young age would ordinarily suggest.
Fun surveys and observations aside, I was a little disappointed to go through the 50th roll in this box and still not find one Indian Head cent in circulation. Yet I am satisfied with the 360 or so keepers I found during this round of penny roll searching, including the wheat cents, bronze Lincoln Memorial cents and Canadian cents. I’m planning on heading back to my bank soon and going through another box.
There’s got to be an Indian Head cent floating around out there somewhere!
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