What Are U.S. Coins Made Of?
Published on 8/21/2020 by APMEX
The change in your pocket could be worth more than you think.
U.S. coins have changed their composition considerably over the years from the post-colonial founding to now. They’ve used various alloys or even pure metal compositions. The one thing for sure, though, is that the value of the metals used isn’t what it used to be.
Coins have to be durable to stand up to being carried around in people’s pockets. They have to be malleable enough to accept the die stamp.
Current U.S. coins are made of fairly similar metals to each other. Each coin has a distinct metallurgic history. The Coinage Act of 1792 originally established percentages, sizes and designs, and in this crucial document, each minted coin was specified to have a certain amount of valuable metal in it. That was the basis for its value. From pennies to dollars, they were each a different weight and size. But the Coinage Act of 1792 has been updated many times and the metallic content of our coinage continues to change and evolve.
There have been other denominations (including 2 cent, 3 cent, 20 cent and half cent), but by and large, the smaller denominations of U.S. coinage have stayed the same: dollar, half dollar, quarter dollar, dime, nickel (or half dime) and penny.
Dollars and HALF DOLLARS
The earliest dollar coins were struck beginning in 1794 and were produced until 1935. These coins were made of 90% Fine Silver mixed with 10% Copper for durability. Gold dollar coins were struck from 1849 to 1889 and were all comprised of 90% Fine Gold mixed with 10% Copper to improve the life span of the coins by making them more durable. After these coins were produced, there was no circulating dollar coin until 1971 when the Eisenhower dollar was struck.
The Eisenhower was struck from 1971 to 1978, succeeded by the Susan B. Anthony dollar from 1979 to 1999. Unlike earlier dollar coins, the Eisenhower (in circulating form) and Susan B. Anthony was made from cupro-nickel, a mixture of Copper and nickel that’s commonly used in coinage.
Sacajawea dollars came after the Susan B. Anthony, struck from 2000 to 2008. Newer dollar coins including the Sacajawea, Native American, Presidential and American Innovation dollars were created with a Copper core covered in manganese brass. This gave them a shiny metallic look, but the coin wore down faster than expected, and these tend to lose their luster quickly.
The American Innovation Dollar coins were first struck in 2018 and are currently being minted, though they aren’t in circulation. The Native American Dollar series began in 2009 and continues to the present day. The Presidential dollar coins were first struck in 2007. They are currently minted and will continue to be minted into the future after the death of a President.
All dollar coins stopped being minted for circulation in 2011 but are still available for collectors. Sacajawea, Native American and Presidential dollar coins are not commonly circulated but can occasionally be found in banks or in older vending machines and are more common in overseas U.S. territories.
Half dollars were made of similar materials to earlier dollar coins, with Silver being the primary metal and Copper gradually taking up more of the composition through the Kennedy half dollar, which was entirely cupro-nickel. The earliest half dollars from 1794 through 1836 were struck from roughly 89% Fine Silver and 11% Copper. Beginning in 1837 and continuing through 1964, all half dollar coins were 90% Fine Silver and 10% Copper.
The current quarter is made of a cupro-nickel alloy layered over a Copper core. Because of the coin construction, it comes out to about 8.33% nickel, and the rest is Copper. You can see the orange wearing through on the edges on well-worn examples of circulating quarters.
Before 1964, all of the Silver-colored coinage you had in your pocket change was 90% Silver. When the supplies of Silver began to run low due to the rise in prices in 1965, the U.S. government had to find an alternative, and it authorized the cupro-nickel blend we see today.
The dime, originally called the “disme” in the Coinage Act of 1792, kept its original 90% Silver, 10% Copper format through 1964. At that point, it became the same 8.33% cupro-nickel alloy that most other U.S. coinage is made from.
The original 5-cent coins were called half-dimes and have been around since the original Coinage Act, but they weren’t called “nickels” until they were re-established in 1866 as a base metal coin primarily comprised of nickel. These have a higher nickel concentration than other cupro-nickel coins, a holdover from their initial design, at 25% nickel and the rest Copper. There are some Silver issue nickels from the World War II years which contained 35% Silver, as nickel was an essential material during the war and was needed for the war effort.
The penny has perhaps gone through more different alloys than any other U.S. coin. Originally established as a 100% Copper coin, at various times in its history, it has seen the proportions of other metals involved change drastically. It was even issued in 1943 as a steel coin, again to help the war effort during World War II.
Today’s pennies are almost entirely made of zinc with a light layer of Copper on the surface.
$2.50 quarter eagle coins, $5.00 half eagles, $10.00 eagles and $20.00 double eagles were Gold denominations that were used at various points in American history until 1933. The new version of the original Gold eagle coin is different in both composition and weight to the originals. These new coins were first struck in 1986. The Gold eagle issues are all comprised of 90% Fine Gold and 10% Copper and have been struck in 1/10 ounce, 1/4 ounce, 1/2 ounce and 1 ounce denominations and sizes. These are the most popular non-circulating U.S. bullion coinage, but other examples of Precious Metal coins are available, including Gold buffalo coins and America the Beautiful Silver quarters. Non-circulating coins still have a face value but aren’t used as legal tender due to the price of the metal being far greater than the face value of the coin.
Most modern circulating American coinage is made of cupro-nickel, with the penny’s Copper-clad zinc and the higher nickel content of the nickel coin standing apart. These coins are durable, attractive and more cost-effective than the Precious Metal alternatives.
Now the next time you pull a handful of change out of your pocket, you know exactly what it’s made of.