The Metal Composition of American Coins Since 1783
Let’s take a look back at the rich history of U.S. coins, from early American coins like the half-cent and the three-cent piece to modern favorites of collectors like the Sacagawea dollars. Old U.S. currency gives us windows into American history, like the massive shortages of copper during World War II leading to pennies being made from steel or the shortages in the 1850s leading to pennies actually having holes in the middle. These old American coins have a lot to say about our changing culture. We’re going to look at how the coins have changed, and we’ll also ask the question, “What are coins made of?” and see how the materials have changed as well.
Can you Name the Metal Composition of These Coins Just By Looking at Them? (Quiz)
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Discontinued and Obsolete Coins
Of course, we didn’t always have just the penny, the nickel, the dime, the quarter, the half-dollar, and the dollar as we do today. We had lots of shorter-lived U.S. coinage over the years:
- The Half-Cent: This coin was a hit until the 1850s.
- The Two-Cent Piece: This one was adopted late and abandoned early.
- The Three-Cent Piece: This piece had a very cool six-pointed star at one point.
- The 20-Cent Piece: This coin went unloved because people often confused it for a quarter due to its similar size and weight.
- Eagle Coins: There was a whole system of eagle coins in the U.S. for a very long time, with a quarter-eagle ($2.50), Stella ($4), eagle ($10), double-eagle ($20), and more in circulation.
The oldest U.S. coin minted was the set of Nova Constellatio coins, which predated our modern system but introduced the idea of decimal accounting. It was the first currency in the Western world to do so.
The History of the U.S. Penny
These are the various versions of the famous American penny:
- Fugio Cent (1787)
- Silver Center Cent (1792)
- Chain Cent (1793)
- Wreath Cent (1793)
- Liberty Cap (1793-1796)
- Draped Bust (1796-1807)
- Classic Head (1808-1814)
- Matron Head (1816-1839)
- Braided Hair (1839-1857, 1868)
- Ring Cent (1850-1851, 1853, 1884-1885)
- Flying Eagle (1856-1858)
- Indian Head (1859-1909)
- Lincoln Cent (1909-Present)
- Steel Cent (1943)
- Experimental Cents (1942)
- Double-Die Cent (1955)
- Aluminum Cent (1974-1975)
What Are Pennies Made Of?
Today’s penny is made of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper. For most of U.S. history, penny composition was primarily copper, though occasionally, pricing caused us to get a bit experimental. For instance, in the 1940s, during World War II, the U.S. Mint made pennies out of steel, plastic, and even glass. All of these were exceedingly rare American coins as copper supplies dwindled during that era. (Fun fact: The 1943 copper penny is possibly the most sought-after American coin there is.) Later on, the U.S. Mint created an aluminum penny as well. When did they stop making copper pennies altogether? Our famous Lincoln cent turned from primarily copper to primarily zinc in 1982.
The History of the Nickel
Nickels, which were called “half-dismes” or “half-dimes” in the beginning, also experienced an era of experimentation in World War II. But collectors should really watch out for the 1913 Liberty Head nickels, which were unauthorized by the U.S. Mint and are extremely rare.
- Half-Disme (1792)
- Flowing Hair Half-Dime (1794-1795)
- Draped Bust Half-Dime (1796-1797, 1800-1805)
- Capped Bust Half-Dime (1829-1837)
- Seated Liberty Nickel (1837-1873)
- Washington Nickel (1866)
- Shield Nickel (1866-1883)
- Liberty Head Nickel (1883-1912)
- Buffalo Nickel (1913-1938)
- Jefferson Nickel (1938-present)
- War Nickels (1942-1945)
The History of the Dime
Brother, can you spare a dime? For most of American history, this tiny coin was made from silver, but it switched to primarily copper in 1965.
- Disme (1792)
- Draped Bust Dime (1796-1807)
- Seated Liberty Dime (1837-1891)
- Barber Dime (1892-1916)
- Mercury Dime (1916-1945)
- Roosevelt Dime (1965-present)
The History of the Quarter
Until 1964, the quarter was made of 90% silver, but it then switched to the modern composition of copper and nickel.
- Draped Bust Quarter (1796-1807)
- Capped Bust Quarter (1815-1839)
- Seated Liberty Quarter (1839-1891)
- Barber Quarter (1892-1916)
- Standing Liberty Quarter (1916-1930)
- Washington Quarter (1932-1998)
- Bicentennial Quarter (1975-1976)
- Washington State Quarters (1999-2008)
- Washington Territories Quarters (2009)
- America the Beautiful Quarters (2010-present)
The History of the Half-Dollar
Foreigners visiting America should probably know that the modern half-dollar, while still circulated, is an increasingly rare coin to see out and about. It wasn’t always that way, though. In the history of coins in the U.S., it was a favorite.
- Flowing Hair Half-Dollar (1794-1795)
- Draped Bust Half-Dollar (1796-1807)
- Capped Bust Half-Dollar (1807-1839)
- Seated Liberty Half-Dollar (1839-1891)
- Barber Half-Dollar (1892-1915)
- Walking Liberty Half-Dollar (1916-1947)
- Franklin Half-Dollar (1948-1963)
- Kennedy Half-Dollar (1964-present)
- Bicentennial Half-Dollar (1975-1976)
The History of American Dollar Coins
Another coin that’s less used but still circulated, the American dollar comes as a coin as well as the famous greenback. Unlike the British pound, the coin version of the U.S. dollar hasn’t been widely circulated.
- Continental Currency Dollar (1776)
- Flowing Hair Dollar (1794-1795)
- Draped Hair Dollar (1795-1804)
- 1804 Dollar (1834, 1858-1860)
- Gobrecht Dollar (1836-1839)
- Seated Liberty Dollar (1840-1873)
- Gold Dollar (1849-1889)
- Trade Dollar (1873-1885)
- Morgan Dollar (1878-1904-1921)
- Peace Dollar (1921-1935)
- Eisenhower Dollar (1971-1978)
- Bicentennial Dollar (1975-1976)
- Susan B. Anthony Dollar (1979-1981, 1999)
- Sacagawea Dollars (2000-present)
- Presidential Dollars (2007-2016)
- American Innovation Dollars (2018-present)