By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
The United States one-cent coin was, along with the half cent, among the first denominations ever coined by the United States Mint for mass distribution and circulation in 1793. The nation’s early one-cent coins are much larger in diameter than those produced since those of the current size and weight debuted in the years just before the Civil War. The one-cent coinage produced from the first days of the Mint until 1857 is nearly the size of a modern half-dollar and made from pure copper. These so-called “large cents” live up to their name, measuring as wide as 28.5 millimeters in diameter and the heaviest pieces tipping the scales at weights of 13.48 grams.
Back in the 1790s and early 1800s, the one-cent coin represented significant purchasing power. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, one cent in 1800 would be worth about 20 cents today. In other words, the relative purchasing power of a one-cent coin back when the denomination was still new approached that of a quarter-dollar today. And quarters remain a critical part of daily commerce.
However, inflation was as much an issue in the 19th century as it is today. And by the 1850s, the economic winds had shifted to the point that it took a lot of one-cent coins to buy much of anything. The large copper coin grew unpopular with the public.
Making The “Penny” Smaller
Inflation and the rising cost of procuring copper to produce one-cent coins influenced a slight reduction in the physical specifications of the coin commonly known as the “penny”. By the 1840s the coin bore a physical width of 27.5 millimeters and weighed 10.89 grams. Still, by the early 1850s, it cost the United States Mint $1.06 to strike 100 one-cent coins. Mint officials began experimenting with new materials for the one-cent coin permitting the coin to be struck with greater financial gain for the mint.
It was determined that smaller planchets of a different, less-expensive metallic alloy could achieve these goals. In 1856, the Mint struck patterns for this new smaller-sized one-cent coin and produced several hundred pieces bearing the Flying Eagle motif by James Longacre, who served as the Chief Engraver of the United States Mint since 1844 and went on to gain a number of design credits to his name, including the Indian Head Cent, the Three-Cent Nickel, and the Shield Nickel.
The new small-cent patterns proved successful in helping persuade Congress to pass the wide-sweeping Coinage Act of February 21, 1857, which not only legalized the small cent but also eliminated the economically outmoded half-cent coin and demonetized foreign coins as legal-tender in the United States.
Enter the Small Cent
The Flying Eagle Cent swooped into its role as a circulating coin in 1857, putting an end to the large cent and opening a new era of coinage in the United States.
Measuring at just 19 millimeters, the Flying Eagle Cent represented a new type of one-cent coin, with a much lighter weight of 4.7 grams and an alloy consisting of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The nickel in the coin gave rise to use of the nickname “white cents”, as these new cents boasted a much lighter color than the preceding large cents of pure copper composition. The new small cent experiment was a success in format, though strike weaknesses inherent to the Flying Eagle design spurred Mint Director James Ross Snowden to seek new designs.
After a series of patterns were minted, United States Mint officials chose Longacre’s now iconic design of Miss Liberty wearing a feathered headdress – a motif lending to the Indian Head Cent moniker. The Indian Head Cent debuted in 1859 and continued until 1909, a 50-year run that saw relatively few changes during the course of a half century; among the most significant of changes to occur during the earliest years of the new cent was a shift in the coin’s metallic composition. The copper-nickel alloy that debuted with the new small cents in 1857 was changed to a bronze alloy of 95%x copper, 5% tin and zinc in 1864.
Except for the emergency zinc-plated steel composition in 1943 during the height of World War II and minor tweaks to the coin’s tin and zinc balance over the years, the one-cent piece’s bronze alloy remained with the cent all the way until the early 1980s.
History repeats itself, and the United States Mint has confronted increasing production costs for the small cent for decades.
A spike in the price of copper during the mid-1970s inspired the creation of an experimental Lincoln Cent struck on an aluminum planchet in 1974. Copper prices settled back down for a short period in the later ‘70s but by 1981 had forced U.S. Mint officials to again reconsider the coin’s bronze content. Congress subsequently approved a new, lower-cost composition for the one-cent coin consisting of a zinc core and an outer copper coating. This zinc-based composition debuted in phases throughout 1982.
However, as the rising cost of both copper and zinc continue to rise, along with the overall production expenditures for striking and distributing billions of one-cent coins each year, there remain calls from many to discontinue production of the beloved penny altogether.