Due to wartime needs of copper for use in ammunition shells and other military equipment used by Allied Forces during World War II, the United States Mint researched various ways to limit dependence and meet conservation goals on copper usage. As any American who was alive at the time recalls, everything from heating oil and rubber tires to sugar and meat were scarce commodities that were needed to help support the millions of men and women fighting on the frontlines In Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
After trying out several substitutes (ranging from other metals to plastics) to replace the then-standard bronze alloy, the one-cent coin was minted in zinc-coated steel. This alloy caused the new coins to be magnetic and 13% lighter. They were struck at all three mints: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. As with the bronze cents, coins from the latter two sites have respectively “D” and “S” mintmarks below the date.
Such rationing measures weren’t restricted to only the Lincoln cents. The Jefferson nickel was also affected, its nickel content redirected to wartime efforts and replaced with a temporary composition of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. Other nations also took similar actions with their coinage during World War II, which began in 1939 and saw American military involvement from 1941 until the end of the international conflict in 1945. While many coins of that period were made from special ration-based compositions, the 1943 steel penny is perhaps the most well-known of such coinage, and it remains popular with today’s collectors.
Problems soon began to arise from the mintage. Freshly minted, they were often mistaken for dimes. Magnets in vending machines (which took copper cents) placed to pick up steel slugs also picked up the legitimate steel cents. The manufacturing process for producing the planchets was also flawed. Mint workers first rolled a sheet of steel to the proper thickness. Next, the steel sheet was plated with zinc and passed through a blanking press. The blanking press punched coin blanks punched out of it. The manufacturing process resulted in bare steel exposed on the edge of the coin. Because the galvanization process did not cover the edges of the coins, sweat would quickly rust the metal. Moisture came in contact with the coins as they circulated in commerce. The moisture caused the zinc coating to turn to an ugly blackish color. As the zinc coating wore off the steel core, the exposed steel underneath began to rust.
All told, the United States Mint struck nearly 1.1 billion zinc-coated steel cents in 1943. That cumulative mintage figure, broken down by the three mints that struck 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent, reveals 684,628,670 were struck at the Philadelphia Mint while the branch mints of Denver and San Francisco produced 217,660,000 and 191,550,000, respectively.
After public outcry, the Mint developed a process whereby salvaged brass shell casings were augmented with pure copper to produce an alloy close to the 1941–42 composition. This was used for 1944–46-dated cents, after which the prewar composition was resumed. Although they continued to circulate into the 1960s, the mint collected large numbers of the 1943 cents and destroyed them.
The steel cent is the only regular-issue United States coin that can be picked up with a magnet. The steel cent was also the only coin issued by the United States for circulation that does not contain any copper. Even U.S. gold coins at various times contained from slightly over 2% copper to an eventual standard 10% copper to increase resistance to wear by making the pure gold coins slightly harder.
An estimated forty 1943 copper cents are believed to have been struck in error, with 13 confirmed to exist. The error occurred when copper planchets were left in the press hopper and press machines during the changeover from copper to steel blanks. Examples were discovered after the War, with the first two in 1947, and another in 1958. That example appeared in a 1958 Abe Kosoff sale, but was withdrawn prior to the sale; one mint condition Denver Mint specimen sold for over $1.7 million in 2010.
In 1944 the mint switched back to using copper to produce the pennies. Once again, the totes contained a few zinc-coated steel planchets stuck in the crevices. The coining presses then produced 1944 pennies on zinc-coated steel planchets instead of bronze planchets causing another great rarity.
Although United States penny is widely known to hold a higher mintage cost than its face value, the United States actually made a large profit on minting steel coins. In 1943, the cost of a gross ton of steel was $34. With a composition of 2.67498 grams of steel making up 99% of the coin, the 1943 steel penny only cost roughly one-ten-thousandth of a dollar.
Since many steel cents corroded and became dull soon after entering circulation, some dealers who sold the coins as novelties improved their appearance by “reprocessing” – stripping off the old zinc coating and then replating them with zinc or chrome. These reprocessed coins are sometimes erroneously described as brilliant uncirculated, or similar terms, by ignorant or unscrupulous online sellers.
A great many years ago, I collected coins alongside my stamp collection. I gave it up before moving to Asia nearly 20 years ago but I still pick up items from time to time. These four steel pennies were found at a street market stall in Phuket, Thailand, just before the lockdowns for COVID-19 began. The vendor wanted 100 baht for the lot (around 35 U.S. cents) which I thought was quite reasonable. All have some condition issues but I am happy to have them nonetheless — more for the history involved rather than their numismatic value.