UPDATE: Lot 6170 sold to an anonymous bidder for $70,500, including buyer’s premium.
It was recently announced that, in 2016, the U.S. penny cost 1.5 cents to make. Congress has been after the Mint for years to find a cheaper way to make the coin, but the current, copper-plated zinc composition is about as cheap as it’s possible to get.
This is hardly the first time the Mint has been under pressure to build a better mousetrap with respect to the nation’s lowest-denomination coin. As if by divine timing, the numismatic media have recently been abuzz over a pattern United States one-cent coin produced in glass. More than 75 years ago, the Mint was under such pressure to make the cent in a different way, it approached American manufacturers for help—only this time, the cause of the pressure was not simple cost effectiveness but the need to win a war. The coin, owned by numismatic researcher Roger Burdette, will go up for bidding tomorrow night (January 5, 2017), as lot number 6170 in Heritage Auction’s “Platinum Night” auction at the FUN Convention.
Burdette’s glass cent is one of two known, and the only one that remains unbroken. The translucent amber coin, classified as Judd-2069 and RB 42-70, resulted from private-sector experiments at the behest of the U.S. Mint during World War II. In the early years of the Great Depression, production of one-cent coins had been relatively scant, averaging just about 20 million per year in 1932 and 1933. Production jumped in ’34 to almost 250 million; after that, it increased more or less steadily, reaching the upper 300 millions toward the end of the decade.
Then, in 1941, the Mint produced more than 1.1 billion one-cent coins. The War Production Board needed every ounce of copper and nickel it could get for the war effort, and the Mint was pressured to find a cheaper compositions for its one- and five-cent coins. Silver, ironically, had little military value, and was used as a “filler” for 35% of the composition of wartime nickels. Coins that were traditionally 90% silver (the dime, quarter, and half dollar), which would in later years lose their precious-metal content in the interest of economics, were unaffected by the hardships of World War II.
The Mint tried to come up with a cheaper one-cent composition on its own, and its pattern cents exist today in bronze, white metal, aluminum, lead, manganese, zinc, and zinc-coated steel. The Mint also reached out to the private sector, placing trade-magazine ads that attracted such manufacturers as the Bakelite Corporation, du Pont Chemical, Durez Plastics, Auburn Button Works, and Colt Firearms. These companies experimented with an array of materials, including many types and colors of plastic, Bakelite, and rubber. One company, Blue Ridge Glass Co., was asked to give tempered glass a try.
Glass might not have been as ludicrous as a material as one might think. Small discs of tempered glass, while obviously much more fragile than metal, were pretty sturdy. They wouldn’t be expected to last forever, just long enough to get the Mint and the American public through the war. Moreover, a penny had actual purchasing power in 1941. The people who had just been through the nightmare of the Depression would, as late as the 1970s and ’80s, be found hoarding cans of soup under their beds “just in case.” They certainly were motivated to handle their pocket change with care during the war years.
Chief engraver John R. Sinnock created the pattern cent dies. He didn’t need a new or special design, just something roughly the size of the existing cents. He based the obverse on the Colombian 2-centavo coin (which the Mint had struck in previous years), with Liberty in profile to the right. He changed the Spanish legend “Republica de Colombia” to the words “Liberty” and “Justice,” removed “Libertad” from the figure’s headband, and placed the date “1942” at the bottom of the coin. He based the reverse on an Anthony C. Paquet–designed Washington medalet, with a simple wreath of olive branches surrounding the legend. He replaced the four-line “Born 1732 Died 1799” at the center of the wreath with the three-line “United States Mint.”
Blue Ridge Glass Company received its set of pattern dies from the Mint and an order of tempered-glass blanks from Corning Glass Co. As it turned out, the challenge with the glass cent was not how to keep it from breaking—it was trying to strike one in the first place. Both the glass and the dies had to be extremely hot, just below the melting point of the blanks. Once the coins were struck, they had to be cooled quickly or the designs struck into the hot, soft glass would begin to flatten. The surfaces of the resulting coins were prone to “crazing” (notable on the reverse illustration, between and to the left of the words “States” and “Mint”) and other imperfections. The National Archives currently holds the company’s six-page project report, dated December 8, 1942. Unfortunately, it has not been digitized, and it takes a diligent researcher like Roger Burdette to access them.
According to the December 1975 edition of The Numismatist, the glass cents actually were satisfactory in the eyes of the Treasury Department—so much so,
that Blue Ridge went ahead and designed a new building to accommodate the company’s expected expansion. While planning the security measures which the building would require, [the firm’s president, J.H. Lewis] was informed by the Treasury Department that the project was being terminated. The Treasury gave him no reason, although official records of the era maintain that the glass patterns proved “too brittle.” However, Mr. Lewis discovered years later that the real reason involved national security. According to Lewis the glass cents for production were to contain uranium oxide (the experimental pieces did not) as an anticounterfeiting device; under ultraviolet light they would give off a fluorescent glow. But in 1942 the secret Manhattan Project was begun, and the government could not afford to have uranium diverted away from the development of the atomic bomb.
So much for the glass cents. As for the plastic versions, The Numismatist reported that the materials in “the only suitable plastics, urea and phenol, had joined copper and zinc on the list of critical materials.” Which is how the zinc-coated steel material the Mint had tried previously were used for the cents of 1943.
As for Heritage Auction lot #6170, a small glass disc manufactured by the Blue Ridge Glass Company of Kingsport, Tennessee, the minimum bid tomorrow night is $20,000. Pattern collectors, historians, and fans of the U.S. small cent will be following the auction with interest. ❑
“The United States Experimental Cents of 1942,” by William G. Anderson. The Numismatist, December 1975, pp. 2643–2648.