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What is a Penny Made of?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated May 17, 2024
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A penny is the lowest form of American currency, worth only one cent, and is popularly believed to be made solely of copper. However, the common penny has been made of a variety of materials over the years, with copper even being removed completely in 1943. Today, a penny is made of 97.5 percent zinc, and 2.5 percent copper.

The first penny was minted in the United States in 1787. Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ founding fathers, suggested its original design. The composition of the first minted penny was 100 percent pure copper. This continued until the mid 1800s, when the penny underwent its first change in composition.

The bronze penny was introduced in 1837, made of 95 percent copper and five percent zinc and tin. These pennies were minted for another 20 years before the next change was made. In 1857, the common penny received a further degradation in its copper content, and was made of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel. This gave the penny a lighter, almost white, hue.

In 1864, the penny returned to its previous bronze composition, of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc and tin. This continued until 1962, with the exception of one year. The 1943 penny was made of steel coated with zinc, due to a copper shortage. Because copper and nickel were sorely needed for making weapons for World War II, there wasn’t enough of the material to spare for minting pennies.

There were a few copper pennies minted in 1943, and these continue to be highly sought after collector’s items today, due to their rarity. There are only forty of the 1943 copper pennies known to exist today, and they have sold for as much as $86,000 US Dollars (USD) each. According to the United States Mint, it is believed that these copper pennies were made by accident, when several copper blanks were left in the press as production on the new steel pennies began.

After 1962, the tin content of the penny was removed completely, and the cent was minted with a composition of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. This remained the standard until 1982, when the composition was once again changed. This time, the penny’s copper content was drastically reduced. The new penny was composed of 97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper, also known as copper plated zinc, and it remains this way today.

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Discussion Comments
By anon993358 — On Nov 07, 2015

@ anon141072: This is not true, there was a 2 cent piece minted in the past.

By ZipLine — On Jan 19, 2013

If copper was/is so important for making wartime weapons, then why not resume using steel and zinc instead of going back to copper after WWII?

I think that's what should have been done. They could have just coated it with copper like we do now. After all no one can tell if the inside is copper or something else that way. It looks like copper from the outside.

Also, my dad has a penny collection and the old pennies are so heavy because of the copper! I have no idea how people carried those things around. The pennies today are much lighter and easier to carry.

By discographer — On Jan 18, 2013
@turquoise-- That's the copper changing color. Pennies are not made from copper anymore but they still have a thin layer of copper on the outside. So that's why they become dark over time.

You can use things like hot sauce, ketchup or baking soda to clean pennies. These remove all the dirt and stain from the copper and make it look like new.

I usually use ketchup. I just soak the pennies in ketchup for a while and then rinse them off. They look really nice and shiny.

If you're a penny collector though, cleaning it might reduce their value. So don't use these methods without asking other collectors.

By turquoise — On Jan 18, 2013

Is the zinc content the reason why pennies become so dark and dirty over time? I have a lot of old pennies lying around the house and they look so dirty. They're almost unrecognizable.

By anon161896 — On Mar 21, 2011

i have a 1934 penny. i know there are certain types of knock offs that were made so how can they tell which is which?

By anon161775 — On Mar 21, 2011

pennies are worthless.

By anon141072 — On Jan 09, 2011

I would not mind a $.02 cent piece. lol. at least it would be a first of a kind collector's item and we would just have to change the stamp press for the penny, that way the penny really would be worth two cents. Martin

By anon138614 — On Jan 01, 2011

The penny, dime and $10 bill should all be discontinued. They are not needed. It will save a lot of expense in making them. Also, bring back the $500 and $1,000 bills.

By anon111459 — On Sep 16, 2010

99 cents without a penny isn't equal to a dollar. It's better to save pennies than to save nothing at all.

By GeminiMama — On Aug 19, 2010

anon86035- I was going to ask that question. What would happen if the United States decided to do away with the penny? I hardly use them unless I come short of .05, which rarely happens anymore. I was starting to wonder if retailers were trying to make pennies obsolete.

My children are young and see them as money, regardless of their worth. They collect all of the pennies they find discarded on the ground and put them in their piggy banks. I was surprised at how much money they had accumulated when we cashed them in for Christmas. Looks like they taught me a valuable lesson!

By anon86035 — On May 23, 2010

If the penny is not printed anymore, this will only give the retailers more profit. They will charge an extra 5 cents to an item. instead of making it $2.01 they will charge $2.05.

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