Lincoln cents were made of bronze most years, but World War II resulted in a couple of changes to the cent composition. Because copper was a critical war material, efforts were made to find alternative materials (ceramics and plastics were considered) from which to produce cents, with the eventual selection of zinc-coated steel planchets for the 1943 production. That change resulted in the inadvertent creation of two Lincoln cent rarities, the copper cents dated 1943 (most were produced in steel), the second steel cents dated 1944 (most were made of bronze). The second change, brought on by the somewhat unsatisfactory results of the steel composition coins, affected cents produced from 1944 through 1946, when cents were produced in part from reused military shell cases. Though the color of uncirculated shell-casing cents was slightly different from the regular bronze composition, the metal content was nearly identical to the original issues, differing only by the lack of tin in the alloy. When new, zinc-coated steel cents have a bright white appearance, but the zinc-steel combination is highly reactive. The zinc coating often disintegrated, leaving the steel exposed to the elements and resulting in rusted and mottled coins.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Uncirculated steel cents were sometimes mistaken for dimes (abetted by the occasional accidental strikes on dime planchets), and when circulated often discolored to the point of looking like slugs instead of genuine coins. The anomalous 1943 copper cents were apparently struck on unused bronze planchets, and amazingly, were produced at all three mints (Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver). By a similar circumstance, some unused steel planchets were used in minting 1944 cents, also by all three mints, after the transition back to a bronze composition. The 1944 steel cents are perhaps rarer, but do not have the cachet of the 1943 coppers. In the years after WWII, a false story spread that the Ford Motor Company would give a new car to anyone who paid for the purchase with a genuine bronze 1943 cent. For years the unsuspecting have been deceived by copper-coated steel 1943 cents, though a simple magnet test easily exposes the fakes; more sophisticated counterfeits have been made on genuine copper cents of other dates or on copper blanks. In a presumed instance of a "good marketing idea gone bad", a New York coin company copper-plated 5,000 steel cents in the early 1960s and released them into circulation. For several months after dealers received calls from those believing they had found a true rarity.
A right-facing Lincoln occupies most of the obverse. At the top, inside a raised rim and above Lincoln's head is IN GOD WE TRUST. To the left of the portrait is LIBERTY, and to the right and slightly lower, the date. Lincoln Steel Wheat cents were minted at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco; D and S mintmarks appear below the date. The designer's initials VDB are located on the bottom bevel of Lincoln's shoulder. The reverse has a prominent display of the denomination ONE CENT at the top center, each word on a separate line, and below that UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in two lines. E PLURIBUS UNUM, with a center dot between the words, arcs along the top inside a raised rim. To both the left and the right of the center text, and curved to follow the rim, are stylized images of the seed head of wheat, called Wheat Ears by many, and the source for the type name.
Several thousand business strike steel Wheat cents are listed in census/ population reports, most Select Uncirculated and finer, and many Premium Gem Uncirculated and finer. The bronze 1943 and the steel 1944 rarities are each currently represented by fewer than 10 pieces. Prices for the standard steel examples are modest even as MS67; both the 1943 copper and the 1944 steel coins are expensive to very expensive. The steel 1943-D Doubled Mintmark pieces are reasonably inexpensive to MS64, expensive finer. Proof cents were not produced in 1943.
Designer: Victor D. Brenner
Circulation Mintage: high 684,628,670 (1943), low 191,550,000 (1943-S)
Proof Mintage: none known
Denomination: One cent (01/100)
Diameter: 19 mm; plain edge
Metal Content: low-carbon steel coated with a 0.005" layer of zinc
Weight: 2.70 grams
Varieties: Very few known: the 1943 bronze (plus the 1944 steel), and the 1943-D; Doubled Mintmark.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
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