The Wartime Cents of the U.S.

The Wartime Cents of the U.S.

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

Within weeks of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the U.S. economy was placed completely on a wartime basis through the various branches of the federal War Production Board. Immediate inventory was taken of the nation’s internal resources and assured lines of supply, with such materials as were, or might become, scarce for the prosecution of the war placed under rationing. One early casualty was the Canadian nickel 5-cent coin, the blanks of which were then manufactured by a Massachusetts company from Canadian metal; further such production of nickel products was forbidden and Canada, unable to produce her own blanks, was forced to switch to the brass-like “tombac”.

The Japanese occupation of Malaya cut off the major source of tin used in America and Canada. Immediately, both countries reduced the tin content of their bronze cents to scarcely more than a trace (since this did not require special legislation). But while Canada continued to issue “tin-poor” bronze cents throughout the war, the U.S. did not do so since copper was also a wartime stategic material and her needs were greater than her ready supply.

Consequently, by early 1942, there was a move afoot by the U.S. government to replace the copper in the Lincoln cent with some other material not in short supply. The first substitute was to be hardened zinc – and the U.S. Mint did experiment with the metal – but by July, 1942, it appeared that zinc, too, would become unacceptably scarce. A suggestion that the Lincoln cent be minted with a large hole in the center with the consequent saving of copper was turned down as difficult to manufacture as well as the perceived poor reception by the public of a coin with a hole through the portrait of Lincoln (who had been assassinated by a head shot). Meanwhile, experiments went ahead at the Mint of cents in pure zinc, copper/zinc compositions (varying grades of brass), zinc coating on various metals, copperweld, antimony and lead – all struck with regular cent dies. All these experimental pieces were supposedly destroyed but at least one “white metal” such piece is known and rumors persist of others in aluminum, aluminum bronze and “composition”. Consideration was also given to paper coins as well as a composition of 88% copper to 12% silver. All were rejected.

John R. Sinnock, Chief engraver at the U.S.Mint.

 He would prepare the special dies for the experimental cents of 1942 but is best known for having been both designer and engraver of the Roosevelt dime (appeared 1946) and the Franklin half-dollar (appeared 1948).

 

The government then decided to turn the problem over to private enterprise and Chief Engraver John Sinnock was directed to make special dies for the various experiments. By law, the U.S. Mint could not allow official dies (or even those closely resembling such) out of their custody. Consequently, Sinnock was directed to supply dies of diameter, relief and general layout along the lines of the Lincoln “Wheat” cent. For the obverse, Sinnock chose to alter the die of the Colombian two-centavo piece, coined at Philadelphia as recently as 1938. The present legend REPUBLICA DE COLOMBIA, the date and the LIBERTAD incused on the headband were all removed from a hub or master die, a new master pressed and LIBERTY JUSTICE 1942 put in their place. For the reverse, Sinnock used the reverse of a nineteenth century Washington medalet, still being restruck at the Mint. Only the wreath was retained; the old legend BORN / 1732 / DIED / 1799 was replaced by UNITED / STATES / MINT.

Original obv of the Colombian 2-centavo

The Experimental obv as modified by Sinnock

Original reverse of the Washington medalet

The Experimental reverse as modified by Sinnock

By August, 1942, the Mint had received word that zinc would be in short supply so the decision was made to experiment in other materials, specifically plastic and glass. In early fall, a total of eight plastics firm and one glass were invited to engage in a competition with the winner invited to tender. Aside from providing each with a set of Sinnock’s experimental dies – on loan – the government apparently signed no contracts nor spent any funds. The plastics firms were: Durez Plastics & Chemical, Inc.; I du Pont de Namours & Co.; The Patent Button Co. of Tennessee; Tennessee Eastman Corp.; Colt Patent Firearms Co.; Monsanto Chemical Co.; Bakelite Corp.; and Auburn Button Works. The lone glass firm was Blue Ridge Glass Corp. of Kingsport, Tennessee.

 Three plastic firms – Durez, Tennessee Eastman and Colt Firearms – received sample bronze strikes from the Mint for the purpose of regulating weight. However, within weeks, certain plastics such as urea and phenol – the only ones found remotely suitable – joined the restricted list. Things initially worked much better for the Blue Ridge Glass Co. They managed to produce experimental pieces in brown glass that were found so acceptable, they went ahead with plans to expand the plant. Abruptly, the Treasury terminated the project, citing the glass as being “too brittle”. Only after the war did the true reason emerge: as an anti-counterfeiting device, Blue Ridge had been directed to mix a certain amount of uranium oxide with their glass so that it would glow under ultra-violet light. But with the top secret Manhattan Project just under way, no uranium could be spared for any purpose other than the construction of the atomic bomb.

The decision was then made to use steel planchets coated with zinc to prevent rust on the Lincoln cents as of the start of 1943 – which was done, more than a billion of them being struck at the three U.S. mints. Ugly pieces, the government switched to cents struck on planchets made from salvaged shell and cartridge cases 1944-6, returning to the pre-1942 composition afterwards.

For some reason, steel experimental cents were struck at the Mint that fall using Sinnock’s modified dies – even though the Mint was entirely within its rights to use official dies and would have been even more accurate. Somehow, one got away and appeared in the numismatic press, who criticized it as a trespass on Colombian coinage. Which it actually was. Mint Director Ross then brought in new regulations prohibiting the use of any official U.S. – or foreign – coin for such outside-the-Mint experiments, even if modified in design.

All of these experimental pieces were supposed to have been destroyed but, of course, not all were. Today, something like thirty pieces in total are known in plastic (the most common), steel and bronze (the least common). None apparently still exist in glass. Still, there may be (probably are) more. It’s hard to believe that none of the various company owners/directors/senior executives would have not retained the odd “souvenir” – not to mention congressmen through whose hands some would also have passed. Chances are good some lay unattributed and undiscovered here and there. Few coin collectors would know what they were and virtually no “civilian”. But you do. Now, if not before.

Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-01, Issue-12