What I like most about coin collecting is that there is almost always a historical “story” behind why a coin is the way it is. A design on the obverse or reverse to celebrate a specific event; reeded edging to help the visually impaired; or in the case of the “1943 steel cent” the need to redeploy copper from pennies to munitions to support our troops in the South Pacific and Europe during a time of war.
What was Happening in 1943?
During this year in our nation’s history, the US was engaged in two wars, one with Japan and the other with Germany. “War bonds” were purchased my millions of American households, helping the US Government to fund its military machine and allowing those not fighting back home to get involved to support the effort (and an interesting side benefit – keeping inflation in check, typically a problem during times of war because of increased government spending). For the first time in history, Women were working regularly in factories (while men were off fighting the war) and US households everywhere were making consumption choices to help ensure enough raw material was available to help support our country. Car companies became tank companies; petroleum was happily rationed so that it could be used to fuels ships, planes and trucks, each of which was now being built at an unprecedented rate; and raw material such as copper was in high demand, as this was used in bullet casings for the US Military.
1943 Steel Penny
The 1943 steel cent represented more than just a copper-rationing plan. To the American people the 1943 steel cent represented the fight for freedom and war against oppression. Steel pennies were as American as war bonds and posters of Uncle Sam wearing the big white top hat with the words “I Want You” emblazoned across the bottom.
In 1943 there were about 1.1b steel pennies produced, which was enough copper savings to make about 250,000 bullet casings. The new pennies had a completely different look and feel because of their metal content. The steel cent was a dull silver-gray metallic color, but without the luster of silver coins. They were incredibly hard to produce, since steel is a harder metal than copper; when the steel planchet went through the coin press, the dies wore quickly.
1943 Copper Penny
In 1943, there were only 40 copper pennies produced (and these were a mistake, some Mint employee threw a few copper planchets in the machine, probably not thinking much of it. The “1943 penny value (the one made of copper), is circa $50,000).
Steel cents represent a great moment in American history, one where citizens of our great nation acted in unison. Because of their relatively low cost and historical significance, every US coin collector should have at least one steel penny in their collection.