Lincoln Cent Coin Composition History

Next year will mark the 100th Anniversary of the Lincoln Cent. During its long run, the coin has had its metal composition altered several times. The coin has had predominant compositions of copper, steel, and zinc. The 2009 Lincoln Cent may see a return to the original copper composition for certain collector coins.

At its start in 1909, the Lincoln Cent had a composition of 95% copper with 5% tin and zinc. This gave the coins the traditional brownish-red color typically associated with pennies. This was the same composition established for the preceding Indian Head Penny.

In 1943, the composition of the cent was changed in response to wartime needs for copper. An act of Congress approved on December 18, 1942, paved the way for “Steel Cents.” These coins were composed primarily of a low-grade carbon steel base with a coating of zinc. These coins have a dull gray color. During 1943, over 1 billion steel cents were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints.

In 1944, the standard copper-based composition was resumed. It should be noted that for the years 1944 to 1946, the source of copper was from expended shell casings used during the war.

In 1982, the Lincoln Cent underwent another radical change. In response to the rising cost of copper, the composition was changed to copper-coated zinc, with 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper. This resulted in coins that had the same appearance but were lighter in weight.

Recently, there have been discussions about changing the composition once again as the price of zinc has risen to a level that makes cent production unprofitable for the Mint. At the moment, no definitive plans or legislation have been passed for another permanent composition change.

Next year, however, there are provisions for a special composition to be used on the 2009 Lincoln Cent. The Mint has the authority to issue collector’s versions of the coins in the original composition of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc.


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