Of course, many of these silver one-cent coins are 1943 pennies, which really aren’t silver pennies. They’re actually made with zinc-coated steel.
However, many of these inquiries about silver pennies have nothing to do with 1943 Lincoln cents or even the highly rare 1944 steel cent (a mint error caused by leftover steel coin blanks getting accidentally getting stamped with the 1944 coin die).
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about their 1961 silver penny. Or their 1978 silver penny. Or their 1986 silver penny.
Since I’ve been getting questions about silver pennies on a regular basis, I’ve decided that it’s time to write a post about them and hopefully help answer some readers’ questions.
First of all, there are many reasons why a penny could appear silver.
Silver pennies can be caused by:
- An error at the U.S. Mint
- Plating with silver, pewter, or mercury
- A common science experiment
Of course, determining what might have caused your penny to look silver means digging a little deeper. Any of the causes listed above could apply to your penny, so to figure out what’s going on, you’ll need the help of a trusty coin scale. However, any scale that can measure items by the gram or the fraction of a gram will work.
Is My Penny Silver Because of a Mint Error?
OK, the most valuable circumstance for your coin would be if it was struck on the wrong planchet (coin blank). Such is the case for 1944 steel cents, as mentioned earlier in this post. Approximately 35 1944 pennies were struck on the zinc-coated steel planchets used for the iconic 1943 steel cent.
1944 steel cents, like their 1943 steel penny siblings, can stick to a magnet, and they weigh decidedly less than their copper counterparts, at 2.70 grams versus 3.11 grams. Yet, they are worth substantially more; a 1944 steel cent can auction for upward of $75,000, whereas a typical 1944 copper Lincoln cent is worth around 5 to 10 cents.
Another reason some pennies may look silver would be because they were struck on dime planchets. These types of errors, though not as rare or valuable as the 1944 steel penny, are still highly unusual and sought-after by coin collectors – especially those who prize error coins. You can tell a penny on dime planchet error relatively easily.
First, part of the design (likely the rim) would be cut off because, as a dime planchet is smaller than a penny planchet. Also, the coin would weigh less. Silver dime planchets (made before 1965) weigh 2.5 grams, and copper-nickel clad planchets (made since 1965) have a weight of 2.27 grams.
An additional cause for pennies made since the 1980s to appear silver is that, in some instances, the copper plating on zinc-based Lincoln cents (produced since 1982) isn’t fully articulated. In other cases the plating is completely missing. These error pennies are worth approximately $50 or more.
Modern zinc-based pennies that appear silver should be carefully evaluated, since some of these coins have had their copper coating chemically removed post mint. Only a coin authentication firm or metallurgist could determine whether the coin was chemically altered.
Pattern Coins and the 1974 Aluminum Penny
Another U.S. Mint-derived cause of a silver penny would be in the case of pattern coins.
Over the years, the U.S. Mint has tried striking pennies using other metals to lessen production costs (as of today, it costs the U.S. government nearly two cents to make a penny). One such experimentation happened in 1973, when the U.S. Mint began striking more than 1.5 million 1974-dated aluminum pennies. These aluminum Lincoln cents, weighing in at less than a gram each, had a brilliant silvery color.
While many were provided to government representatives, the coin failed to gain traction. Opposition toward the coin came from several groups, including pediatricians, who were concerned the aluminum composition of the coin would not be picked up by X-ray machines. The vending industry also scoffed at the coin over concerns that they would cause mechanical failures in vending machines.
Though the U.S. government eventually recalled all 1974 aluminum pennies, about a dozen are still missing. All are considered government property and subject to seizure by the U.S. Secret Service.
Turning a Penny Silver
So if your silver penny isn’t a 1944 steel penny, penny on dime planchet error, or U.S. Mint pattern coin, what might you have?
In all likelihood, you have a penny that has been plated with silver, pewter, or mercury.
Countless pennies have been altered in appearance with the application of silver-colored (as well as gold-colored) metals. Whether done as a science experiment in school or purely for the sake of novelty, plating pennies has long been a popular thing to do — especially for those who have no numismatic interest in coins and are unaware that plating coins is considered post-mint damage (PMD, as we coin collectors acronym it) and can actually lessen the value of a coin.
You can tell a coin has been plated by weighing it. If your penny was made after 1982 and weighs greater than 2.5 grams, it was likely plated; and, remember, pennies made before 1982 (with the exception of some mid-19th century one-cent coins) shouldn’t weigh more than 3.11 grams.
Always treat plated pennies with caution, since there is a very strong likelihood the substance of choice for the plater was mercury – a poisonous element that can be absorbed through the skin and cause neurological injuries.
What Kind of Silver Penny Do You Have?
Have you been able to determine what type of silver penny you have from reading this post?
While my intention is to educate whether than to burst the bubble on the value or mystique of your silver penny, I hope you have one of the scarce error coins that I mentioned early in this article. Rare coins can be and are found in pocket change, and many turn up in estates and even while combing the ground with a metal detector.
Good luck! And, if you have any questions, remember that you can always drop a line here in the comments below.