It’s 1947, and 16-year-old Don Lutes Jr. has just eaten in his school canteen in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. After leaving the dining hall, he takes a closer look at the change that the cashier has given him and notices something different about a particular penny. And since he’s a coin collector, he puts it aside. More than 70 years will pass, though, before the full story about this one-cent coin emerges.
But before we get back to Lutes, let’s look at a little history. The first one-cent coin in America appeared in 1787. Said to have been designed by Benjamin Franklin, it was known as a “Fugio” cent because that word – the Latin for “I flee” – was inscribed on the coin.
And as well as the word “Fugio,” there was an image of the Sun casting its rays over a sundial to represent the passage of time – which was “fleeing.” At the bottom of the coin, meanwhile, were the words “mind your business.” So the message on the coin was, roughly, “Time is passing; get on with your work!”
Both the Fugio and its successor coins – collectively known as the United States large cent – were minted from copper. And over the years, the United States large cent was graced by a number of different designs. Examples include the Flowing Hair design from 1793, the Draped Bust from between 1796 and 1807 and the Braided Hair from 1839 and 1857.
These large cents were, it’s worth noting, a good deal bigger than the ones that we are accustomed to today. Their diameter was originally 1 and 1/8 inch – as opposed to the 3/4-inch modern penny that we know today. The dimension of the cent was dropped to its present size back in 1857.
This drop in size was also accompanied by a change in the copper content of the coins. Indeed, 1857 saw the introduction of the Flying Eagle cent, which was made from copper mixed with 12 percent nickel. And then in 1858 the Indian Head penny came into circulation before remaining in use for some 50 years.
The year 1909 then saw the replacement of the Indian Head one-cent coin with the Lincoln penny. As you may have realized, this is the very design that is so familiar to us today. And 1909 was a particularly significant year because it marked the centenary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
The 1909 Lincoln cent was also known as the Wheat cent because of the heads of grain that decorated its reverse side. And this coin had yet another metal composition, with the penny having been made up of 95 percent copper since 1864. The other five percent was composed of tin and zinc.
But the Lincoln penny also marked a sea change in the design of U.S. coins, as it was the first one to feature a recognizable portrait of a historical figure. Previously, designs had mostly been images depicting a personification of liberty. It’s been said that public opinion had been against the portrayal of individuals but that positive sentiment about Lincoln had overcome this view.
By the time that the teenage Lutes had discovered the curious coin in his school canteen in 1947 the Second World War had been at an end for two years. However, the coin itself had been minted in 1943. And in that year, the U.S. was in the throes of conflict with the Axis powers, led by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
The U.S. had entered WWII towards the end of 1941 after Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet even before its entry into the war, America’s industrial economy had begun to grow as it produced war supplies. However, this also meant that some resources that were essential to the war effort were in short supply.
But what does all this have to do with Lutes’ coin? Well, these wartime shortages were responsible for the properties of the 1943 penny that turned up in his change. In fact, as it turns out, the coin was incredibly rare. And it was an especially attractive find for numismatists – or collectors of coins, as they might also be known.
You see, among the things that were in short supply in wartime America were certain metals. And one of these valuable elements was copper, which was needed for the manufacture of munitions. That’s right, the metal was used in shell and bullet casings and for wire used in telecommunications. Restrictions were therefore imposed on its use for civilian purposes.
For example, it was forbidden to use copper at all in construction. Regulations also restricted its use for certain other purposes to just 60 percent of the pre-war level. And the government noted another area where savings could be made in the use of copper: the minting of coins.
Of course, one of the coins that used copper was the humble one-cent piece. And since the coin had a composition of 95 percent copper, the U.S. Mint decided to explore feasible alternatives. One extraordinary experiment even involved glass. Yes, the idea was floated that pennies could be made from the material that we use for windows.
What’s more, the glass penny was even produced in prototype by a company called Blue Ridge Glass – which was based in Kingsport, Tennessee. The coins were manufactured using translucent glass with a yellow-amber color, although none ended up in circulation. And of the prototype glass pennies, it’s thought only two still survive.
The glass cent is a fascinating object to be sure, but as a coin it was a failure. In its report to the U.S. Mint, the Blue Ridge Glass Company admitted that it couldn’t make the coins with sufficient accuracy and consistency. And worse still, the edge could become sharp enough to cut. It wasn’t something that you’d want jangling about in your pants pocket, then.
Meanwhile, it’s said that one of the two surviving Blue Ridge pennies is broken in two – rather emphasizing why a glass penny wasn’t such a great idea. The other intact coin went under the hammer at auction in 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, though. And in an example of the high prices that keen coin collectors will pay for unique specimens, the glass penny sold for $70,500.
“This one-of-a-kind cent is a part of U.S. history,” a senior numismatist at Heritage Auctions, Mark Borckardt, was quoted as saying. “Collectors love to own unusual specimens. And although glass failed as a substitute for U.S. coinage, this piece represents a unique artifact of the ingenuity and determination of U.S. Mint officials and private industry.”
As well as considering glass, though, the U.S. Mint apparently toyed with the idea of using other materials – including rubber and plastic – to substitute for copper in the penny coin. But after much consideration, the Mint settled on the idea of producing steel one-cent coins coated with zinc.
Yet this was just one example of the huge impact that the Second World War had on daily life and industry in America. Sacrifices had to be made within civilians’ lives, and many materials were in short supply. And, of course, the country had even been forced to move away from the predominately copper penny that it had been using since 1787.
Hence, the mints in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Denver all set to work on producing the new steel and zinc coins. But although the composition of the metal in the coin had changed, the design had not. Indeed, the U.S. Mint had stuck with the original pattern created by Victor David Brenner back in 1909.
Born in 1871 to Jewish parents from Lithuania, Brenner was an engraver of gems and seals who’d arrived in the United States in 1890. And the president at the time when Brenner was working, Teddy Roosevelt, was certainly impressed by his craftsmanship. It was at Roosevelt’s personal order, then, that Brenner was given the commission.
Given that he died in 1924, though, Brenner didn’t live to see his coin produced in steel. But if he had set eyes on it, he would have noted a few differences between the steel coin and its predecessor. For one thing, the coin was 13 percent lighter, and it could also be picked up with a magnet. To this day, in fact, it’s the only American coin ever to have had that property.
There were a few problems with the new coins, though. For instances, some vending machines were fitted with magnets so that people trying to swindle the machines with steel washers or other fakes would be foiled. But now these magnets would wrongly pick up on legitimate steel pennies.
Another drawback was that the new coins could rust. This was because the galvanizing methods used to coat the steel with zinc covered only the faces of the coin and not the edges. It was therefore possible for rusting to happen when water or even sweat came into contact with the uncovered rim of the coins.
And that brings us back to Don Lutes Jr. and his 1947 visit to the school canteen in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Now although still only a teenager, Lutes was apparently already a keen coin collector. And his familiarity with coins underpinned his belief that there was something different about the 1943 penny in his change.
Lutes knew that with the 1943 date on it, the coin should have been made of zinc-coated steel. But that’s not what it looked like to him. To his eye, it seemed for all the world just like a copper penny. How could that be, though? Well, Lutes apparently couldn’t figure that out at the time, and for the moment he put the coin to one side as a curio.
But strange stories had been doing the rounds ever since the 1943 steel coins had come into circulation. Indeed, the tales appeared in the press and told of extremely rare copper versions of that year’s coinage. People across America started searching for these mythical copper coins, then, with forgers even taking advantage by passing off steel pennies plated in copper.
Yet one particular tale about these copper 1943 pennies, as rare as hen’s teeth, caught Lutes’ attention. The urban legend in question had it that if you could find one of the copper cents, Henry Ford would exchange it for one of his automobiles. And this was enough to prompt Lutes into action.
Lutes therefore wrote to the Ford Motor Company to ask if the story that he had heard was true. But the company’s emphatic answer to his query was that it certainly was not. Undeterred, however, Lutes also wrote to the Treasury Department to ask about the apparently copper penny that he had in his possession.
Yet, frustratingly, it seems that the U.S. Mint had created a standard letter to answer queries about possible copper versions of the 1943 penny. And the Treasury now forwarded a copy of this to Lutes. “In regard to your recent inquiry, please be informed that copper pennies were not struck in 1943,” the letter stated. “All pennies struck in 1943 were zinc coated steel.”
So officialdom was adamant that there was no such thing as a copper cent from 1943. But, in fact, there were some copper coins. That’s right: it seems that some copper planchets had got mixed in with the steel ones at the mints where the coins were struck. And in case you were wondering, planchet is the term for the blank discs which are used to strike coins.
One theory is that a few of the copper planchets from 1942’s coinage remained caught in the mechanism and that mint staff didn’t notice them mixed in with the steel and zinc blanks. However the coins came about, though, as many as 40 of these copper pennies were struck – regardless of the official position of the U.S. Mint at the time. In fact, the Mint’s website now admits to the existence of the coins.
As a Heritage Auctions press release put it, “The few resulting copper cents were lost in the flood of millions of steel cents and escaped detection by the Mint. They quietly slipped into circulation, to amaze collectors and confound Mint officials for years to come.” And young Lutes had gotten hold of one of them.
Sadly, Don Lutes Jr., an army veteran, passed away in September 2018 at the age of 87. A widower, he had resided in a care home after his health began to deteriorate. Yet he hung on to that coin right up until his death. In fact, he’d continued his hobby as a numismatist, too, ending up with a collection of around 50,000 coins.
But of Lutes’ vast collection of coins, it seems that the 1943 copper penny remained his most cherished. Indeed, one of Lutes’ friends, Peter Karpenski, told The Boston Globe as much in January 2019. “He was very proud of the fact [that] he owned it,” Karpenski asserted to the paper. And now the coin was set to be sold by Heritage Auctions.
But while the auctioneers estimated that the coin would fetch as much as $170,000, the press began to report that the coin would fetch a fabulous sum – far in excess of the auction estimate. The Daily Mail, for example, headlined a January 2019 story with “Penny accidentally made of copper by U.S. Mint in 1943 and found by a teen in his school lunch change in 1947 is expected to fetch $1.65 million at auction.” Where this figure had come from, though, is anybody’s guess.
But the coin did, in fact, sell for well over its estimated value – although well below the media-conjured figure. That’s right, the owner of Northeast Numismatics, Tom Caldwell, paid $204,000 for the copper penny. And the proceeds are to go to a good cause: Pittsfield’s public library, the splendid Berkshire Athenaeum. This was a fitting tribute, too, as Lutes had for many years been a volunteer at the library.
The U.S. Mint churned out more than a billion steel coins, only reverting to copper-rich bronze after 1943. But if you find a steel penny in your change, don’t get too excited; they’re said to be worth no more than 13 cents apiece. It was estimated, however, that the copper saved as a result of the steel coins being produced was enough to equip 1,243 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 240 artillery pieces, a pair of cruisers and a couple of destroyers to boot. So it’s safe to say that they really offered great value for money in their day.