Pique the Geek 20100801: Lincoln One Cent Pieces

Many of you who read my posts regularly know that I am a very dedicated numismatist, and that I have written many posts about coin collecting.  I have also written about the history of United States coins extensively.

What you may not know is that I specialize in Lincoln one cent pieces, minted from 1909 to the present day.  This is the longest running series of all United States coins by a large margin, lasting 101 years now with little change on the obverse, but with some.

This post will let you know a bit more about them, and also some of my passion for what most people think of as something insignificant.  They are far from insignificant.

Lincoln cents are the third regeneration of the small cent series that started in 1857.  Before than, one cent pieces were pure copper and almost the size of a modern 50 cent piece.  They got to expensive to mint, folks did not like such a large coin with such a low value anyway.  By the way, the United States NEVER minted a coin called a “penny”.  That is a holdover from British coinage for what is thought to be the lowest denomination of their coins, but that is not even correct.  Britain minted several coins of lower denomination than their penny.

So did we.  Until the Act of 1857, the United States minted half cents as well, and that was the smallest denomination that we ever used in coin.  However, the “mille” was authorized in the first law that authorized minting of coins by the United States, being one-thousandth of a dollar, whilst the cent is one-hundredth of a dollar.  Modern usage of this term is the “millage rate” for school taxes for most property owners.

In any event, the small cent started with the flying eagle design, from 1857 to 1858.  These coins were were the same diameter as our modern ones, 19 mm, but were much thicker.  They were made from an alloy of 88% copper and 12% nickel, and had a golden look when they were new.  They were called “nickels” at the time, but that name later became associated with the 75% copper and 25% nickel alloy in our five cent pieces, which are white.

In 1859 the design was changed to Lady Liberty wearing a feathered headdress, hence the name “Indian Head” cents.  They were minted in the copper/nickel alloy until 1864, when the demands of war needs caused a change.

In 1864, the alloy in the coin was changed to 95% copper, 3% tin, and 2% zinc, essentially a bronze with some zinc in it.  By definition, copper alloyed with tin is bronze, even it other metals are added.  Also by definition, copper alloyed with zinc with no tin is brass.  The small cent of 1864 and later was exactly the dimensions that we have now, 19 mm in diameter, and much thinner than the old ones.

The Liberty wearing a feathered headdress continued until 1909. By the way, its design was by James A. Longacre, one of the best sculptors ever employed by our Mint.  He also designed the Flying Eagle small cent.  Little thought is given to the people who design our coins, and they need to be remembered.

A couple of years before the centennial of President Lincoln’s birth, a contest was held for a new design for the one cent piece.  This coin was to be a commemorative, but it caught on fast. Victor D. Brenner designed the Lincoln portrait and the wheat ear reverse ideas, and from 1909 on this is our standard cent.  Both cents were struck in 1909, making that what we in the trade call a transition year, when two radically different designs were struck for circulation.

The alloy for the coins was 95% copper, 3% tin, and 2% zinc, and that alloy lasted until the demands of World War II caused the Mint to use mild steel, coated with zinc, for all of the legal 1943 cents.  Folks sometimes call them “lead cents” because of their color, but they were essentially galvanized steel.  This was the very first clad coin issued by the United States.  They are rare in circulation now because of magnetic separators in coin sorters.  This is the only US coin to date that is ferromagnetic.

Because of the huge amounts of brass shell casings being shipped back to the United States in the waning years of World War II, cents were minted with them.  Most shell casings are 70% copper and 30% zinc, so the Mint just added copper to bring the melt to 95% copper and 5% zinc.  This produced a coin that looked a little shallower that the bronze alloy, but they did not corrode badly and were OK for use.  “Shell case” cents were minted from 1944 to 1946.

In 1947, the original alloy, 95% copper, 3% tin, and 2% zinc was resumed.  That was used until 1963, when the cost of tin became prohibitive.  That year, the alloy was changed to 95% copper and 5% zinc.  These coins are identical in composition to the Shell case ones.  They stand up to corrosive environments pretty well.

The cost of copper rose in the mid to late 1960s, and experimental pieces were struck in different metals, including aluminum, zinc, steel and some others.  As far as I can tell, all of those pattern pieces were destroyed by the Mint, but I suspect that some high level employees smuggled out a few.  If that is the case, those coins are worth millions of dollars each.  However, to possess one is a very grave Federal offense, with years of prison and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted.  With that said, I am almost positive that there are a few of them in very, very private collections, just like the 1964 Peace Silver dollar.

In the very early 1980s, the cost of copper rose beyond the value of the one cent piece.  Damned old Reagan signed the bill to remove the copper from cents.  In 1982, the composition was changed from the alloy mentioned above to a core of 99.2% zinc, 0.08% copper, electroplated with a pure copper shell, as thin as aluminum foil.  The entire coin is 97.5% zinc, and 2.5% copper.  These coins look fine, for a couple of weeks.  Then the copper plating gets holes in it.  They decay rapidly after that.

I really dislike the zinc based coins.  Steel plated with chromium or nickel would have been better, but then they would not look copper colored.  Plastic ones would be another idea, but the huge zinc lobby got it way.

In Canada, their cents were about like ours until 1982, then they went to zinc, and later to copper plated steel.  All Canadian coins are steel now, with plating to make them look like the real thing.  All US coins are copper cores (except for the cent) with either a plating or a bonding of a copper/nickel alloy on the (copper in the case of cents) surfaces.  Only the current five cent piece is the same through and through.  It is interesting that the 1943 steel cent was the first and only clad US coin, and now all our coins, except the five cent piece, are clad.

Now to my original research about Lincoln cents.  Since late November last year I have been keeping statistics, and since then I have examined 111,500 cents.  Of these, 111,256 turned out to be US issue, most of the rest being Canadian.  We get quite a few Canadian in Kentucky.  Five were from Caribbean countries.  The statistics are remarkably stable, to my surprise.  I figured that there would be a noticeable decline in the amount of bronze and brass cents and a relative increase in zinc ones, but there is not a real trend.  Over the entirety of this set, the average for copper based cents is 26.59%.  I tend to do batches of 10,000 coins per card (I will show a picture of a typical card in a bit), but one exceptional batch was 15,000 coins from Simmons First National Bank in White Hall, Arkansas.  The copper based coins in this batch amounted only to 14.75%, and that threw off the total average a little.  For cents from PNC Bank in Richmond, Kentucky, the numbers range from a high of 32.15% to a low of 24.93%, both batches being from November of 2009.

If I throw out the outlying Simmons set, the average is 28.46% copper based cents, and few batches vary by more than 1%.  I am surprised to see this be the case.

Another statistic that I keep is the number of San Francisco mint marked cents (I keep these statistics only for Lincoln Memorial reverse coins, since there were a LOT of “S” Wheat Ears reverse cents.  This is also remarkably stable, averaging 0.23%, in other words, about one out of 500 cents.  The highest was from a batch from Arkansas at 0.31%, but this is not really surprising since “S” mint marks were distributed west of the Mississippi River, so there should be more of them in Arkansas than in Kentucky.  They quit minting business strike cents in San Francisco after 1974, so all of these coins are at least 36 years old.

Likewise, I keep statistics on Wheat Ear cents.  The ones from Kentucky average around 0.36%, or one in around 350 coins.  The Arkansas ones are much lower, because there were so few copper based cents in the population that I sampled.  This is also quite stable, with the limits being one batch of 0.46% and another of 0.27%.  You hardly ever find a steel cent in circulation any more because the magnetic separators in coin sorters filter them.  Likewise for steel Canadian cents.

If you get friendly with your banking folks, you can get coins for no cost.  I got a really nice steel cent when cashing in a bag of search cents a few months ago because their sorter had flagged it.  They also give me all of their magnetic Canadian coins, and some of them are pure nickel and not steel.

By now you must be asking, “Doc, why do you go to this trouble?”  That is a fair question.  I do it because of the occasional die error that I find.  Some of them are quite valuable.  Just a couple of weeks ago I found a 1999 Philadelphia cent (a business strike) struck by mistake by using dies for proof cents.  It is in excellent condition, and is worth around $300.  There are LOTS of Lincoln cents with die errors, and I have hundreds of them.

As a matter of fact, there are more die error Lincoln cents with respect to date and mint mark than any other US coin.  This is largely because the series is the longest running one in US coinage history, 102 years so far.  By the way, I really like the new reverse design for the 2010 cent.  We used to have shields on our coins often, and it is nice to see one back.  I would really like to see a business strike bearing the likeness of Liberty on the observe some time, but there are too many dead Presidents.  The last business strike in the US to bear her image was the beautiful Walking Liberty half dollar, last struck in 1947.

This is getting to be too long, so I shall break for the evening.  I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about coins, coin collecting, and the future of the one cent piece (I think that it is extremely limited).

Oh, here is an example of the 3 x 5 index cards that I keep whilst examining coins.  The first two columns count rolls of 50 coins, the rest count single coins.  The front includes basic statistics, and back details about coins that I found that were exceptional.  From the description that I have given you in the text, the headings should be self explanatory, but ask in a comment if you do not understand.


This is the front view


This is the reverse view

Well, you have done it again.  You have wasted many einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this metallic post.  And even though the very nutty Representative Peter King sits down and shuts up when he reads me say it, I always learn much more than I can hope to teach as I write this series.  Thus, please keep questions, comments, corrections, and other information coming.  Remember, no scientific or technical issue is off topic in this series.

Warmest regards,


Crossposted at Thestarshollowgazette.com and at Dailykos.com

Copyright August 01, 2010 by Dr. David W. Smith.  I also reserve the trademark Pique the Geek, but anyone is free to use this material as long as I am cited as the source.


  1. good money?

    Warmest regards,


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