Ever since their introduction in 1909, Lincoln cents have been among the most popular collector coins available. From controversial initials to composition and design changes, this small denomination has remained a perennial favorite. And now, as we move further into the 21st century, new changes abound for this numismatic staple. With only one major design change in the last century, the Lincoln cent saw four new reverse designs in 2009, with a fifth and final design in 2010.
With its wide diversity of intriguing varieties, low-mintage key dates, and varied metallic compositions, the Lincoln cent series has a lot to offer the collector. Lincolns are accessible for young collectors, yet they also offer challenges worthy of the serious numismatist. And lets not forget that their story is a fascinating history of the United States in the 20th century. It's no wonder they are the most popular and most collected U.S. coin!
From the beginning of the series in 1909, until the emergency measures for World War II began, the Lincoln cent was struck from an alloy of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. This was the same alloy used for Indian Head cents from 1864-1909.
To free up metals needed for munitions in World War II, and to avoid a coin shortage, the U.S nickel and cent compositions were changed. First, partway through 1942, the tin was removed from the cent, so it became 5% zinc and 95% copper. Later, to free up much-needed copper, the government once again changed the 1943 Lincoln cent to zinc-plated steel.
The cents of 1944, 1945, and some of 1946 are struck from salvaged spent cartridge casings reclaimed from troop training areas. The casings were 70% copper and 30% zinc, so enough pure copper was added to make the alloy about the same as pre-1943 composition. By the end of 1946, the original Lincoln cent copper alloy, with both tin and zinc, was resumed, and continued until the tin was removed in 1962.
From 1962 until 1982, the cent was struck in 95% copper and 5% zinc. Then, partway through 1982, the cent was changed to a core of 99.2% zinc and .8% copper with a pure copper plating.
In 1974, the mint was looking for alternative metals and struck experimental cents in aluminum. Due to unforeseen difficulties, no aluminum cents were released into circulation. Although supposedly destroyed, a handful were not accounted for. One of these test pieces is now in the National Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.
To honor the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and the centennial of the Lincoln cent in 2009, special collectible versions of all four commemorative designs were struck for the year's Mint and Proof Sets. These special coins boasted the same metallic content of Brenner's original 1909 cent. Weighing 3.11 grams apiece (slightly heavier than today's cent, which weighs 2.5 grams), each coin was comprised of 95% copper, with the remaining 5% constituted of tin and zinc. They were released in conjunction with the circulating versions, which were still issued in the standard copper-nickel composition.
Ways to Collect
If you're just starting out, it may be fun to start rooting around in your pocket change and seeing what you can find. This is a great way to get started, but it will be difficult to find older cents and scarcer mint marks. To build a quality collection it is best to purchase coins from a trusted dealer. For the easiest way to build your collection, consider joining Littleton's Lincoln Cent Collectors Club – each month you will receive a selection of Lincoln cents for a 15-day examination period in your own home, risk free. If you discover any coins you like, purchasing them is simple, and if not, you can always return them at no cost to you. This is a convenient way to see and handle the coins before you buy, and a great introduction to Lincoln cents for a new collector.
Storage and Display
A complete Lincoln cents collection can include over 250 coins – a good reason to consider your options for storage and display. There are several ways to store your Lincoln Head cents collection: for the first-time collector, a blank cents folder may be the easiest and most attractive option. Or, you can use Lincoln Head cent folders which have predetermined spots for each date and mint mark, which along with our coin checklist will make completing your collection even easier! If you're keen on saving space, a Lincoln cent album may be a better option as it holds a complete collection in just two volumes. However, if you crave freedom when it comes to what, and how many coins you will collect, a coin album with blank cent pages will allow you to tailor your collection however you like.
Storage is incredibly important – you worked hard on your collection, and it deserves to be beautifully displayed! Find out more about caring for your coins.