What Are Pennies Made Of?
The United States penny is made from 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.
Ever wonder what pennies are made of? Many think they’re made of copper, and that’s not necessarily incorrect. But the technical answer is far more nuanced – much more so than most may realize. Let’s delve into what metals pennies are struck from now and in the past and include a look at how pennies are made.
Lincoln Memorial cents have undergone multiple composition changes over the years. Prior to 1982, they were made of bronze, which is 95% copper.
What’s Inside a Penny? Historical Penny Coin Compositions
The penny has been made from a variety of metals over the years. In fact, if we go way, way back – to the first coins struck as pennies in England – we find that these early penny coins were made from silver in the 8th century under King Offa.
Eventually, pennies and other small-denomination coins like them were struck from copper, which is what the first United States one-cent coins were made from. The metallic composition of the nation’s first large cents was pure copper. This was the case up through 1857, when the large cent was abolished in favor of a smaller, lighter one-cent coin that was also cheaper to make as copper prices rose.
Photograph of an 1856 Flying Eagle cent designed by James Longacre, back when the penny was made of 88% copper.
The formal introduction of the “small cent” was in 1857 (a year after 1856 Flying Eagle small cents were struck essentially as patterns). This version of the United States penny was struck from a copper-nickel composition that was 88% copper and 12% nickel. This continued until midway through 1864, when the metallic profile of the penny was switched to a bronze alloy composed of 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc. This was used until 1943, when material rations surrounding World War II forced the United States Mint to look to a zinc-coated steel composition for striking pennies.
The famous 1943 steel cent is a one-year-only type, something born from the public rebuke of the temporary wartime measure. Many complained that the steel pennies rusted too quickly, or that the silvery surface made it confusing to tell pennies apart from dimes – resulting in costly errors for some using the coins in cash-based transactions. In 1944, the United States Mint resumed the 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc bronze alloy by way of reusing spent shell casings. This practice continued through 1946, with conventional metal procurement methods carrying on beginning in 1947 though with the same bronze format.
The penny’s metal content remained the same until 1962, when the 5% balance of the copper-based bronze composition was changed from a zinc/tin makeup to just 5% zinc. This new 95% copper, 5% zinc composition was intact for the next two decades.
What Are Pennies Made from Today?
Fluctuating copper prices have made mint officials reconsider the penny’s “Cu” metallic composition many times in history. This factored into the physical downsizing of the one-cent denomination in the 1850s. It was once again a concern in the early 1970s, when a spike in copper prices led to a nationwide shortage of pennies. At the time, the United States Mint experimented with an aluminum one-cent coin, though these pieces – dated 1974 – were eventually all melted after falling copper prices led government officials to abandon these plans.
But plans for revamping the penny’s bronze composition were on the table again not too many years later. In 1981, the persistent duo of rising copper prices and increasing production costs led the U.S. Mint and U.S. Treasury to conclude the time was right for one-cent coins to be made with a less-expensive metallic composition.
After much testing, not to mention debate on Capitol Hill, a copper-plated zinc format was chosen. The new composition rolled out over the course of 1982. By 1983, all Lincoln cents were struck from the newly adopted copper-plated zinc composition, which – when broken down to a technical level – is made from a 99.2% zinc, 0.8% copper core plated with pure copper.
1982 Lincoln Memorial cent made from the old bronze alloy.
Except for some 2009-dated Lincoln pennies struck from the traditional 95% copper, 5% zinc composition, all Lincoln cents struck since 1983 have featured the copper-plated zinc profile. The question remains how long will this continue? Rising metals prices and production costs have reached a point where even the zinc-based penny costs around two cents apiece to strike.
Some in Congress have called for the abolition of the one-cent coin altogether, or perhaps a compromise solution of sorts involving the use of an even cheaper metal, such as steel. The future of the United States one-cent coin and its metallic composition remains fuzzy, though for now the penny continues marching along with vigor – billions are made at the United States Mint each year.
How Are Pennies Made?
United States one-cent coins are struck in similar fashion today as other circulating coins, such as the nickel, dime, and quarter. However, there is one important difference when it comes to the one-cent coin. Unlike the other denominations, which the mint blanks onsite from long strips of metal, the U.S. Mint purchases cent blanks. However, the mint does supply the manufacturers with the copper and zinc necessary for producing these blanks.
The mint prepares the blanks through annealing, a heating process that softens the metal. The blanks are then washed and dried before entering the upsetting mills, which raises a slight lip of metal around the perimeter of the coin.
After upsetting, a blank is technically known as a planchet. These planchets are then fed into the striking presses, where dies strike the obverse and reverse designs within a collar, the latter holding the coin in place upon striking and simultaneously forming a rim.
You can read all about the minting process and how coins are made on the Gainesville Coins blog.
Newly struck pennies are inspected for quality and to help weed out any errors or other nonconforming pieces. They are then counted, bagged, and distributed to Federal Reserve locations around the country for distribution into circulation.
Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a journalist, editor, and blogger who has won multiple awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild. He has also authored numerous books, including works profiling the history of the United States Mint and United States coinage.
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