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Steel cents disliked

During World War II, rationing of metal in the United States for the war effort impacted everyday life. For the nation’s coinage, two well known changes were put into place—the 1942-1945 war nickels and the 1943 steel cent.


The new cents, which were of zinc-coated steel, would save on copper. The Feb. 28, 1943, issue of The Repository, Canton, Ohio, datelined to Washington, Feb. 27, wrote:

“New zinc-coated steel pennies were put into circulation by the treasury today for the first time.

“Only limited quantities of the cent pieces went into exchange. The bright non-copper ‘coppers’ resemble a cross between the nickel and a dime. First samples were handed to treasury officials by Assistant Mint Director Leland Howard, and later the treasury’s cash room began ‘selling’ the coins in lots of 50 or fewer. Coin collectors and the curious obtained most of today’s new pennies. The new pennies will save at least 4,600 tons of war-vital copper this year.”

The savings were there, but the coins were pretty much instantly disliked, due to their resemblance to a dime. Some even thought boring a hole into the silver-colored cents was a solution.

An AP story datelined to Washington, July 23, in the July 24, 1943 issue of the Columbus Daily Enquirer, Columbus, Ga. reported:

“The new steel penny looks so much like a dime that hundreds of persons have written to the treasury asking that something be done to end the confusion.

“Secretary [Henry] Morgenthau declared today, however, that the treasury has found it impracticable to change the color or size of the coin, or to bore holes in it. Therefore people will have to put up with it for the duration.

“‘The experts tell me,’ Morgenthau said, ‘that in time the coins will tarnish and no one will ever mistake one for a dime.’”

In October of that year there were reports of the coins disappearing from circulation. The Oct. 27, 1943 issue of the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, Calif. wrote:

“Chicago bankers said today the new steel cent, which misbehaves in vending machines and often is accepted for a dime by the unwary, slowly is disappearing from circulation.

“Fred Grimm, silver teller in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, admitted he is puzzled.

“‘We’re all mystified about it,’ he added. ‘Some think the new cents are disappearing because they’re being saved up for War Stamps and Bonds. Others claim people are hoarding them thinking the government will pay a premium for them. We get phone calls daily from people who ask if this will happen.’

“Maybe it is just because people do not like them.”

By March of the next year, the copper supply had improved enough to resume cent production in .950 copper.

Fortunately they never got around to boring holes in the zinc-coated steel cents. But unfortunately, due to rusting, many are readily identifiable today.

Happy collecting!

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

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