This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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There is a lot more to the story of the 1955-S Lincoln cent than its current $7.50 price in MS-65 would suggest. In fact, among the Lincoln cents there is probably more of an interesting story behind the 1955-S than there is for most dates that are many times its price.
The 1955-S Lincoln cent was a coin that had an immediate audience because of one simple factor: It had been announced that 1955 would be the final year of coin production at San Francisco. For Lincoln cent collectors, that was enormously important.
It is easy to get nostalgic when it comes to old mints of the United States, and it’s especially easy when it comes to the famous “Granite Lady,” which was the San Francisco Mint for many years. Back in April of 1906, the Granite Lady stood alone, the only financial institution in the heart of a city still standing after the earthquake and fire.
The important thing to collectors of the 1950s, however, was that year after year the cent production at San Francisco had been below that of Philadelphia and Denver. There were a couple exceptions like the 1914-D, but in general the lowest cent mintages were from the San Francisco facility. Of the major Lincoln cents, the 1909-S VDB, 1909-S and 1931-S were all from San Francisco along with a host of better dates from 1910 to 1915. A mixed roll of cents from San Francisco cost more than one from any other facility.
An end to San Francisco coin production loomed large in the minds of everyone as it was really the heart and soul of Lincoln cent collecting. That made the 1955-S a date everyone had to own.
As it turned out, the 1955-S was a fitting representative of San Francisco. It had a mintage of 44,610,000. It was not only the lowest Lincoln cent mintage of 1955, but it was also the lowest since the late 1930s. There was a scramble, and the 1955-S was a lot tougher to find in circulation than its mintage suggested.
There was extensive hoarding of the 1955-S, although we really have no records of anyone with 7 million pieces. What was happening was that every collector wanted a roll and every small dealer wanted 10 rolls as opposed to one person trying to corner the market. All those small hoards now more than 50 years later have kept the supply of the 1955-S better than might be expected and the price lower, even in MS-65.
It may seem odd that collectors hoarded a coin with a mintage of 44,610,000, but it was a time of hoarding. The reason was the 1950-D Jefferson nickel and its price climb. Everyone was looking and hoping for the next 1950-D, and for a time the 1955-S along with the low-mintage 1955 dimes looked like the next 1950-D nickel. So not only did people hoard the 1955-S, but they held on to their hoards long after it seemed unlikely that the 1955-S was a 1950-D.
In the years since, the 1955-S has basically drifted off into the background. It was a classic collector’s coin from a very different era when assembling sets from circulation was the major way of collecting coins. In a world of MS-67 Morgan dollars, the 1955-S cent almost seems out of place.
The San Francisco Mint resumed coin production in 1968, taking away the historic importance of the 1955-S. That said, the 1950-D Jefferson nickel, after decades of no price movement, has recently sprung to life. It might still be possible for the 1955-S to have at least one short period where it shows the sort of potential many expected.