What does a 1944 steel penny look like? In 1944, the United States Mint was facing a copper shortage due to the demands of World War II. As a result, pennies produced that year were made of zinc-coated steel rather than the usual bronze (copper and tin) composition.
If you’ve stumbled upon a 1944 penny recently and want to know if it’s one of the rare steel cents, read on for a comprehensive guide on identifying these unique coins.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: 1944 steel pennies have a dull, gray appearance compared to the bronze, reddish look of normal pennies. They are also attracted to magnets due to their steel composition.
Background on 1944 Steel Pennies
Copper Shortages During WWII
As the United States entered World War II in the early 1940s, the government was faced with critical shortages of important metals like copper that were crucial for the war effort. Copper was vitally needed to manufacture ammunition, telegraph wires, and other military essentials.
With copper supplies dwindling, the U.S. Mint began searching for copper alternatives for the one cent coin in 1943. Up to that point, U.S. pennies had been made of a bronze alloy that consisted primarily of copper with small amounts of tin and zinc.
Switch to Steel Composition
After testing a variety of substitutes, the Mint settled on low-carbon steel with a zinc coating to prevent corrosion. Steel pennies entered circulation in 1943 and were produced in large quantities in 1944 as well.
Compared to normal bronze pennies, 1944 steel cents have a gray color and are attracted to magnets due to their steel composition. They weigh about 20% less due to steel’s lower density.
According to the U.S. Mint, over 1 billion steel one cent coins were struck in 1943 and 1944, accounting for roughly 45% of wartime penny production. However, the steel coins were prone to rusting and the zinc coating peeled off easily from use.
Return to Bronze Composition in 1945
As WWII drew to a close in 1945, Washington lifted copper restrictions and the Mint resumed producing pre-war style bronze cents. The return to copper pennies marked the end of the line for steel composition.
|Total steel cents minted
|Steel cents in 1943
|Steel cents in 1944
Very few pristine 1944 steel cents still in circulation today given their age and wear. Collectors prize certified uncirculated examples, with values reaching into the thousands.
How Many 1944 Steel Cents Were Made?
The 1944 steel cent is one of the most fascinating coins in US history. With copper needed for World War II artillery shell casings and other military equipment, the US Mint experimented with alternative metals for the one-cent coin in 1943 and 1944.
In 1943, the Mint produced about 1 billion bronze-coated steel cents. These 1943 steel cents were met with public disapproval, as they were easily rustable and did not work in vending machines. As a result, the Mint tried again in 1944, this time producing coins electroplated with zinc and coated with lacquer to prevent corrosion.
Official records show that the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints produced a combined total of 271,540,000 1944 steel cents. This was a fairly high mintage for the time. However, it is estimated that only about 40-50 of these 1944 steel cents still exist today.
The Rarity of Surviving 1944 Steel Cents
So what happened to the other 271 million plus steel cents that were made? After public objections, the Mint halted production of the 1944 steel cent in December of that year. The steel cents already produced were largely retrieved and destroyed in early 1945.
A few contributing factors led to some steel cents surviving:
- Some 1944 steel cents made it into circulation before being retrieved.
- There were likely some errors and oversights in the retrieval and destruction process.
- Some steel cents were kept as pocket pieces or souvenirs rather than being turned in.
Today, a few dozen 1944 steel cents are known to still exist. Most estimates put the number of confirmed surviving examples at around 40-50 coins. However, more discoveries could still occur occasionally.
Value of 1944 Steel Cents
Given their extreme rarity, 1944 steel cents command massive premiums when sold at auction or by dealers. Here are some recent sales records:
|1944 Steel Cent Grade
|$253,000 in 1999
|$373,750 in 2010
|$288,000 in 2013
As you can see, even lower-grade examples in so-so condition routinely fetch over a quarter million dollars at auction. And uncirculated specimens could sell for $500,000 or more!
So despite its high original mintage in 1944, the 1944 steel cent is now one of the rarest and most valuable US coins. Any additional discoveries would surely make headlines in the numismatic world.
Identifying Features of 1944 Steel Pennies
Dull, Gray Color
Unlike typical bronze pennies, 1944 steel cents have a rather drab gray appearance. The color differs considerably from the brownish hue of copper coins. This is because 1944 pennies contain zinc-coated steel instead of the usual copper content.
When new, the zinc coating gave them a shiny silver look. But after circulation, most 1944 steel cents acquired a dull, gray patina from contact with other coins and exposure to air.
Attracted to Magnets
A key identifying trait of 1944 steel pennies is that they stick to magnets, whereas normal copper pennies do not. This magnetic quality comes from the steel core of the 1944 coins. Using a refrigerator magnet provides an easy test to detect possible steel cents.
One simply holds the magnet close to the penny to see if it’s attracted. However, some 1944 steel cents have degraded zinc coatings that weaken the magnetic attraction.
Distinctive Weight and Sound
Weighing the penny provides another means of identification. 1944 steel cents feel noticeably lighter than normal bronze cents in the hand. Based on a U.S. Mint specifications, a 1944 steel cent only weighs about 2.7 grams versus 3.11 grams for a modern copper-plated zinc cent.
When dropped, 1944 cents also produce a high-pitched “ring” sound, while copper coins emit a lower-frequency “clunk” noise.
Issued Only in 1944
Finally, a basic indicator is the date itself — 1944. This was the only year that steel cents were minted for circulation. Prior to 1965, pennies traditionally contained about 95 percent copper content. But copper was considered a strategic war material during World War II.
So in 1943, zinc-coated steel was substituted to conserve copper for military use.
Mint Marks on 1944 Steel Cents
No P Mint Mark
The 1944 steel cents were produced at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints. However, the 1944 Philadelphia cents do not have a mint mark indicating their place of origin. This was standard practice for coinage from the Philadelphia mint at that time.
The lack of a mint mark makes the 1944 Philadelphia cents more common among remaining steel cent specimens. Tens of millions were produced in Philadelphia to help alleviate the wartime copper shortage before shifting back to copper coinage in 1945.
While common, finding a 1944 Philadelphia steel cent in circulation is exceptionally rare. Any that enter cash transactions are quickly retrieved by attentive collectors. Despite their relative abundance among surviving steel cents, they remain highly desirable collector’s items.
D Mint Mark More Valuable
The 1944 Denver cents feature a prominent D mint mark on the reverse, indicating their origination at the Denver mint facility. Far fewer steel cents were struck in Denver, with just over 35 million produced.
The lower Denver mintage makes these 1944 D steel pennies considerably more valuable than their Philadelphia counterparts. In similar preserved conditions, the D cents trade for significantly higher premiums.
One 1944 Denver steel cent in PCI Certified Mint State 63 grade recently sold at auction for $114,000 USD. This highlights their comparative rarity and greater demand among advanced collectors seeking high-grade examples from the brief steel cent series.
Rarity and Value of Steel Wheat Pennies
The 1944 steel wheat pennies are one of the most sought-after and valuable pennies among collectors. Here are some key facts about their rarity and value:
Low Mintage and High Demand
The low mintage coupled with strong collector demand over decades has made the 1944 steel rare and valuable.
High Grades Command High Prices
Steel cents in lower circulated grades are worth $1-2 while examples grading MS 63 red can sell for around $75. In top grades like MS 65 red, they can fetch over $500 at auction. This shows how condition drives value.
Special Varieties Add Value
There are a few extremely rare 1943 steel wheat cent varieties that sell for huge premiums. These include:
- 1943-S steel cents – only a few proof examples are known
- 1943 copper cents – around 20 exist due to striking errors
- 1944 steel cents – also rare errors where steel planchets got reused the next year
These special editions can be worth upwards of $100,000 and more in select conditions.
Authentication and Grading Are Critical
In short, these World War II rarities have become modern treasures that seem likely to continue appreciating over time. Securing nicely preserved, legit examples is the challenge for serious collectors.
How to Preserve and Store 1944 Steel Cents
Handle Carefully to Avoid Damage
As one-year-only issues that are now almost 80 years old, 1944 steel cents require exceptionally careful handling to avoid damaging them. When picking up or moving a steel cent, grasp it by the rim rather than touching the surfaces.
Fingerprints and oils from skin can permanently stain the reactive zinc-plated steel surface. Dropping a steel cent or allowing it to bang against other coins can also cause nicks, scratches or small dents that substantially reduce its value to collectors.
Use Archival-Quality Coin Holders
For protection during handling and long-term storage, 1944 steel cents should always be placed in chemically inert, plastic coin holders. Never store them in paper envelopes, cardboard flips, or plastic bags as chemicals and environmental contaminants can cause spotting or corrosion over time.
Archival-quality coin holders made from plastics like Mylar or Ethafoam are considered the best way to preserve steel cents in pristine condition.
Some other advantages of secure coin holders include:
- Prevent fingerprints and damage from oils on skin
- Guard against scratches, nicks and dents during handling
- Block out gases and moisture that can corrode surfaces
Maintain Consistent Storage Conditions
Even when steel cents are safely encapsulated in coin holders, their storage environment plays a key role in preservation. As reactive metal planchets, they are vulnerable to corrosion from temperature and humidity fluctuations that can cause “bronze disease.”
Maintaining cool, stable conditions minimizes chemical changes to the surface.
The most favorable storage guidelines include:
- Temperature from 60° to 70° Fahrenheit
- Humidity between 35% and 45% RH
- Low-light conditions away from direct sun exposure
- Fireproof safe or bank deposit box for secure protection
Following meticulous protocols for careful handling, archival coin holders, and strict climate control provides the best chance of preserving these historic 1944 steel cents for future generations. As the rarest 20th century circulating coins, their survival directly depends on conscientious collectors taking proper conservation measures.
What Does A 1944 Steel Penny Look Like – Conclusion
1944 steel pennies represent a unique period in U.S. coinage history when copper shortages forced the Mint to alter penny composition for one year. With their dull gray finish, magnetic properties, and distinctive weight and sound, these Lincoln wheat cents stand out from normal bronze pennies in appearance and physical traits.
While not the most valuable coins out there, their rarity and historical significance make 1944 steel cents a fascinating find for any coin collector or history buff. If you discover one of these wartime relics, be sure to store it properly so future generations can continue to appreciate this iconic coin.