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Making a career out of cent’s fate

If the U.S. cent will hang on just a few years longer, I will be able to someday claim that I spent an entire career periodically writing about the coin’s potential demise.

If the U.S. cent will hang on just a few years longer, I will be able to someday claim that I spent an entire career periodically writing about the coin’s potential demise.


What a neat way to earn a paycheck.

When I first joined the staff of Numismatic News in 1978, memories of the 1974 aluminum cent patterns and Congress’ rejection of them were very fresh. I have even held one of the illegal aluminum cents in my hand (yes, they are out there). Certainly they are lightweight, but I don’t think they would have made a bad substitute for the 95-percent copper cent.

By rejecting aluminum in 1974 Congress assured itself of a recurring problem of what to make the cent out of so the topic came up again in 1982 and the composition was changed to copper-coated zinc.

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This composition made the cent lighter and cheaper, but not so light as to cause anyone to question the aluminum cent decision on that basis just eight years before.

The 1982 composition change proved durable. It also proved that Gresham’s Law has a lower limit. Bad money (lower value zinc) doesn’t necessarily drive good money (higher value copper) out of circulation when the public doesn’t give a hoot about either one. Both compositions have circulated side by side for 30 years, though admittedly attrition is taking its toll on the copper coins even as I can write that of the four cents I received in change in two different transactions this past Saturday, three were the old 95-percent copper alloy.

It would seem that the periodic waves of public cent hoarding in the 1970s to early 1980s were not so much caused by what the cent was made of but by a sense that the coins were in short supply and therefore somehow worth keeping.

Once the Mint drowned the public in an abundant cent supply, most people lost interest in deliberately saving the coins of either composition. That, of course, didn’t end the casual accumulation of coffee can hoards, which are also fun to write about.

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What will happen now that Canada is abolishing the cent and the topic will be chewed over in the United States? I expect Congress will attempt to preserve the cent by authorizing a cheaper composition. It is unlikely, though, that whatever is chosen to be the next composition will survive for three decades as the present composition has, but it will likely be long enough that I will be able to bequeath to my successor the demise of the cent as a topic.

The new cent probably also will continue to be copper colored no matter what it is made of, thereby introducing the likelihood that cents of three different compositions will be circulating side by side for a time.

What probably won’t happen is the Mint striking large numbers of cent patterns in various test compositions for direct sale to collectors. Such coins would be a hit with collectors, they wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg like Eagles, but we can’t have that, now can we?

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