This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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What kinds of metals are best suitable for coinage? That question is currently being asked of Congress as the U.S. Mint’s latest report on the topic was delivered Dec. 13.
Collectors and non-collectors are aware of gold, silver and copper, the historically popular coinage metals. But how many alloys and metals have been used for patterns, besides the familiar ones?
Half cents and large cents were made of pure copper. Early silver coins were struck in .8924 fine silver and .1076 copper; later, the silver coins were 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper.
Early gold coins were .9167 fine gold and .0833 silver and copper; later issues were 90 percent gold and 10 percent copper. The tiny silver 3-cent piece started out in the years 1851-1853, was struck in 75 percent silver.
Gold does not tarnish. Gold coins, even circulated pieces, keep their pretty golden color. Some specialists claim they can tell where a gold coin was minted from its color. Gold coins from some Southern mints can show a greenish color. Other gold coins can appear golden yellow or an “old gold” color.
Silver dollar collectors are familiar with toning – a tarnish that shows in many colors, some attractive, some not so; some toning is spectacular, with rainbow colors in pink, blue, green and yellow. Often the end dollar coins from a roll show toning, from the sulfur in the paper used in the rolls. Even smaller silver coins show toning, including 3-cent pieces. Toned half dimes and trimes look like little jewels.
Large cent specialists have seen cents in different shades of copper, from chocolate brown to mint red, to orange and light brown, to unattractive green and black.
An inferior grade of copper was used to strike large cents of 1808-1814. These cents show wear quickly and are difficult to find in higher grades. The value rises dramatically with each higher grade as a result.
The small-sized Flying Eagle cents were made of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel, giving the coins a whitish appearance. These “white cents” were struck through the early years of the Indian Head series ending in 1864, when the composition was changed to 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc, or bronze. This composition was used for many years. The metallic composition was not changed until the steel cents of 1943. That metal was used for only one year. Many pattern and experimental pieces are found, struck in many different metals and alloys.
Besides gold, silver and copper, quite a few patterns were made in nickel, copper-nickel, tin, white metal and various other metals and alloys. Sometimes the proposed alloy is stated right on the coin.
Aluminum was first isolated in 1825. It was considered a semi-precious metal through the 1880s and sold by the troy ounce. Its retail price was sometimes higher than the price of silver.
Many pattern and experimental pieces were struck in aluminum; the first was an 1855 pattern half dollar. Entire sets of regular coinage have been struck in aluminum; at least one set is still together and was displayed at a major convention. Numismatists who collect Indian cents, gold coins, or silver dollars would be surprised to see their favorite coins in aluminum. The difference in color for the cents and gold coins is surprising to collectors who are not familiar with patterns.
There were also a few sets of regular coinage made in copper. Some of the famous $4 gold patterns, known as “Stellas,” were struck in copper, with at least one gilt, with a thin plating of gold.
Platinum was not recognized as a precious metal until the late 1800s. Three pattern 1814 half dollars were minted in this metal. One has the word “platina” engraved in the reverse field, and has numerous letters “P” punched into the obverse.
Billon and German silver were also used for patterns. Billon is an alloy of silver containing more than 50 percent copper, giving the coin a dull and unattractive appearance. German silver is actually an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc – no silver. The proportions of each metal can differ.
A number of experimental 1-cent pieces minted in 1854 were made in German silver. Some were 40 percent nickel and copper and 20 percent zinc. Other pieces contained more copper, and some were made of an alloy of 78 percent silver.
Lewis Feuchtwanger made his own variety of German silver, and proposed that his alloy be used in 1837. He issued 1-cent and 3-cent pieces made of his alloy, with a reverse inscription, “Feuchtwanger’s composition.”
Some patterns bear their metallic content within their design. Certain 1883 pattern nickels have the words “pure nickel” on the reverse. Some bear these words, but were struck in aluminum. Other 1883 pattern nickels have “75N./25C,” “50 N./50C.” or “33N./67C.” on their reverses. Present day nickels are composed of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel.
1869 pattern dimes were minted with the description “SIL. 9/NIC. 1” on the reverse, and another with “SIL./NIC./COP.” Strangely, none of these patterns were actually struck in silver.
A half cent token issued in 1837 bears the legend, “half cent worth of pure copper.”
The Trade dollar, issued from 1873-1885 – with the later issues struck in proof for collectors – had its weight and fineness mentioned on the coin itself: “420 grains, .900 fine.” Many pattern and experimental Trade dollars were issued from 1871-1883, nearly the end of the series. The pattern Trade dollars of 1871 and 1872 were called “Commercial Dollars;” some 1872 patterns were called “Trade Dollars.” The pattern and regular issue Trade and Commercial dollars all had their weight and fineness on the reverse.
The beautiful and rare Bickford $10 dollar pattern of 1874 not only contained its weight and fineness – exchange rates for five world currencies appeared on the reverse. Dana Bickford proposed the idea for an international coin, predating the euro by 125 years. This idea was not practical, as exchange rates could fluctuate.
Other more unusual metals used for pattern and experimental pieces include Goloid, Oroide and Ruolz’ Alloy.
Goloid was an alloy of gold, silver and copper, patented by Dr. Wheeler Hubbell in 1877. A number of pattern dollars were minted in this metal in the next few years, although it proved impractical for coinage; it could be counterfeited using only silver. The Goloid dollar patterns had their alloys defined on the reverse. The 1878 dollars bore “1 G./24 S.” on their reverse – 1 part gold, 24 parts silver. The 1879 “goloid metric dollars” were “895.8 S./4.2 G./100 C.” while others of 1879 and 1880 had different metallic descriptions.
Oroide – its name derived from “oro,” the Spanish word for gold – was an alloy of copper and aluminum, which produced a gold color.
Ruolz’ Alloy, composed of silver, nickel and copper, was used for patterns in 1869. There were problems with strike, and the alloy was not considered for regular coinage.
A few patterns were minted in brass and lead, but these materials were not seriously considered for use in circulating coinage.
During World War II, a number of 1-cent patterns were struck in different materials. Copper and nickel were needed for the war effort, and alternative metals for the cent and 5-cent coin had to be considered. The famous war nickels were struck from 1942-1945 in 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver, and 9 percent manganese. The “war pennies” were struck in 1943 in zinc-coated steel. Collectors who remember finding these coins in circulation often found the coins with rust spots. Spent shell casings were used to mint cents of 1944 and 1945. The difference is not usually apparent, except on Mint State cents; the color is different and can show streaking.
A few experimental pieces were made in 1942, using the regular Lincoln cent dies and a different design.
1942 Lincoln cent patterns in aluminum, zinc-coated steel and white metal are known. A number of other experimental pieces were made in colored plastic, hard rubber, tempered glass, fiber and Bakelite ( a kind of plastic). These pieces bear an obverse resembling a Colombian 2-centavo coin, and a reverse featuring a wreath and the legend, “United States Mint.”
Aluminum made a comeback in 1974 and 1975. The Philadelphia Mint struck over 1.5 million aluminum cents dated 1974. These experimental pieces were given to officials and congressmen. Most of these pieces were destroyed, but a few still remain. One is in the Smithsonian, another is in private hands though it is not legal to own. Probably others exist. Reportedly, 66 specimens of the 1975 cent struck in aluminum were coined, but their whereabouts are unknown.
Cents have been struck in copper-plated zinc since 1982.
The Treasury Staff Study of Silver and Coinage explored the use of different metals and alloys for use in United States coinage, when it became clear that silver could no longer be used. The Battelle Memorial Institute also conducted its own independent study.
Criteria used in determining which metals to replace silver included cost, ease of circulation and use in vending machines. Among the metals tried and rejected were aluminum, pure nickel, columbium, zirconium, stainless steel, titanium, and an alloy of 50 percent silver and 50 percent copper.
Pure nickel, being magnetic, could not work smoothly in vending machines. Stainless steel, titanium and columbium also had this problem. Zirconium was always found with hafnium, its so-called “sister metal,” and the two were the most difficult metals in the periodic table to separate. The half-silver half-copper alloy looked unattractive after some wear. Aluminum posed a great risk of counterfeiting, along with poor wear quality and being too light to work well in vending machines.
The six finalist alloys to replace silver in 1965, besides the adopted copper-nickel clad material, included the homogenous copper-nickel alloy used in 5-cent coins; a copper-nickel-zinc alloy; the United Kingdom alloy of silver-copper-nickel-zinc; a silicon-nickel combination, invented by the International Nickel Company and known as “Inco Alloy;” and silver-copper clad.
Both the Treasury Study and the Battelle Memorial Study recommended the now familiar copper-nickel clad material: 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, bonded to a core of pure copper.
Since 1965, circulating quarters and dimes have been made of this alloy of copper and nickel, bound to a core of pure copper. The half dollars of 1965-1970 were made of outer layers of .800 fine silver and .200 copper, bonded to a core of .209 silver and .791 copper – making the coin an overall 40 percent silver. The composition changed to copper-nickel clad in 1971.
A number of trial strikes in different combinations were minted in 1965, using a design featuring Martha Washington on the obverse and Mount Vernon on the reverse. The September 1965 issue of International Science and Technology pictured a number of these tokens, and reported they were struck in eight different combinations of silver, copper, zinc and nickel. The Official Red Book of Patterns lists these pieces were struck in columbium, zirconium, monel, stainless steel and other alloys of copper, nickel and silver. To date, only the pieces struck in clad material have surfaced.
Dollar coins issued in 2000 featuring Sacagawea were minted in manganese brass alloy. The core is pure copper, with an outer layer of 77 percent copper, 12 percent zinc, 7 percent manganese and 4 percent nickel. The Presidential dollars of 2007 to date are made of the same materials. Coins that have circulated may show unattractive coloring, just as the war nickels that also contained manganese.
The Library of Congress $10 commemorative of 2000 was a bimetallic coin, struck in gold and platinum. Bimetallic coins have been minted in many countries, and a collectors’ club is devoted to these coins. Actually, the United States issued a bimetallic coin way back in 1792 – the famous and rare silver center cent. A small plug of silver, worth three-quarters of a cent, was surrounded by copper, worth one-quarter of a cent. There are also a few of these cents struck in “fusible alloy,” copper and silver, but the exact makeup is not known with certainty. A pattern 2-cent piece of 1865 is also bimetallic, silver and copper.
The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, when slabbing pattern and experimental pieces, will perform a metals analysis for an extra fee. Perhaps a few more unlisted patterns will surface this way. Coinage metals are often not considered by the average collector, who concentrates on eye appeal, condition and rarity. Pattern specialists and numismatists who like to know details about their special coins can learn about minting and history by studying the many different metals and alloys used to make United States coins.
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