The Transitional Cents of 1982

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 1/1/2005

As the Lincoln cent approaches its 100th anniversary in 2009, there is talk of modifying its design to honor the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth that same year...


David Lange

As the Lincoln cent approaches its 100th anniversary in 2009, there is talk of modifying its design to honor the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth that same year. What's really amazing is that the one-cent piece is still being coined at all. Numismatists and economists have been declaring it obsolete for the past 30 years, yet it soldiers on through a combination of lobbying efforts by the zinc industry (posing as "Americans for Common Cents") and simple bureaucratic inertia.

It appeared that the cent was already in crisis during 1973, when the rising price of copper threatened to make the melting of these coins profitable. That never came to pass, but the U.S. Mint did experiment with alternatives to the existing brass composition of 95% copper and 5% zinc. These experiments included two extensive test productions of aluminum cents, as well as a shorter pressrun of cents made from bronze-clad steel. All of these coins were dated 1974, though the test period extended from late 1973 into early 1975. The return of copper's price to its pre-crisis level terminated these experiments, and no changes to the circulating coins were made at that time.

Anticipating that such a problem would arise again, Congress did authorize the Treasury Secretary to make any needed change in the cent's composition without requiring further legislation, a most unusual and broad step. Public Law 93-441 was passed October 11, 1974 but, as we now know, its provisions were not acted upon until several years later.

When the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s and early '80s again drove up the price of copper, it was decided that the cent's composition had to be changed to reduce its copper content. Since the value of the cent was, by then, more symbolic than real, it was deemed important that the new issue look exactly like the existing cents. This meant that any alternative metal would have to be plated with either pure copper or a high-copper alloy.

The bronze-clad steel cents tested a few years earlier were evidently not satisfactory, so further tests were made during 1980-81. A practical solution was found in a cent planchet that was nearly pure zinc, with just a thin copper plating. In fact, the zinc base was .992 zinc and .008 copper, the trace amount of copper being included to facilitate bonding of the copper plating.

All planchets for the new cents would be fabricated by outside vendors and delivered ready to coin. A contract was awarded July 22, 1981 to the Ball Corporation of Greenville, Tennessee for press-ready planchets to be delivered no later than November. Production of the copper-plated zinc cents was anticipated to begin in December using dies dated 1982. Since the new cents would not be available in large quantities for another several months, the coining of brass cents was expected to continue throughout much of 1982.

Just as the zinc industry today supports the coining of cents using its product, in 1981 the copper producers howled at the prospect of losing their lucrative market. A lawsuit was filed in October of that year by the Copper & Brass Fabricators Council alleging that the Treasury Department lacked the legal authority to change the composition of the "penny," whereupon the District of Columbia's U.S. District Court dismissed the suit on the grounds that the Council lacked the legal authority to sue! This dismissal was later affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals and the matter forgotten.

Coining of the zinc cents actually commenced on January 7, 1982 at the West Point Mint. (Little remembered today is that this facility produced nearly a billion cents from 1974 to 1985. As these bear no mintmarks, they are indistinguishable from those made at Philadelphia.) Soon thereafter, Philadelphia undertook this coinage, too. Denver continued to produce solely brass cents until October 21, 1982. That was conversion day. After coining brass cents in the morning, an hour's suspension was affected during which time all the remaining brass cents and planchets were cleared away, and the striking of zinc cents began. The first delivery of these from the Coining Division was made on the 27th. The San Francisco Mint struck nearly four million proof cents for collectors, but these were all of the traditional composition. It was found that the underlying zinc broke through its thin copper plating under the repeated impressions given to proof coins. This problem was solved in 1983 and subsequent years by furnishing each proof planchet with a second copper plating. Oddly enough, San Francisco did mint 1,587,245 zinc cents for general circulation in 1982. Like those made at West Point, however, these bear no mintmarks.

The coin hobby enjoyed a real windfall when the U.S. Mint decided to make a major revision to the cent's obverse master hub midway through 1982. The new hub is most easily recognized by its much smaller date, and these Small Date cents were first struck September 3. Ultimately, a total of seven different combinations of date size, mint and composition were created for the circulating cent coinage in 1982, only a 1982-D Small Date Brass cent being omitted. When one adds the 1982-S Large Date Brass proof cent to this mix, the result is a most memorable year for collectors.

David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.