In the early 1970s, rising prices of copper forced the US Mint to consider alternative metals for the one cent coin. The Mint was spending more than one cent to produce each one cent, and as the coins were in high demand (over seven billion were produced in 1973), the Mint stood to lose a great deal should copper prices continue their ascent.
The Mint tested a number of different possible metal combinations to replace the 3.11 gram, 95% copper alloy used since 1909. Ultimately, the Mint selected a 96% aluminum alloy for the new cent. The aluminum was considerably cheaper, satisfying the Mint’s primary motivation for the change, and lighter, weighing over two-thirds less than the copper cents. The Mint produced over 1.5 million aluminum cents in anticipation of the switch. Though they were produced during 1973, they were dated 1974 with the expectation that they would be released sometime during the following year.
However, US Mint Director Mary Brooks faced resistance to the aluminum penny in Congress. Various stakeholders testified before House and Senate committees in opposition to the change. Copper mining companies objected to the loss of business; vending machine companies would have to change their machinery to accommodate the new material; radiologists expressed concern that the aluminum cents would be difficult to identify on an x-ray should they be swallowed by a child.
In an effort to win over the Congressmen on these committees, Brooks distributed a few samples of the new aluminum cents. The exact number is not known, but a few dozen were probably given out to both members of Congress and Treasury officials. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful – the change in the cent’s composition was not approved. By this time copper prices had receded a bit and the need to replace the copper cent was not as pressing.
After the Mint recalled and destroyed the aluminum cents, a few of the samples Brooks had handed out were not returned. One specimen was donated to the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institution. Only two other verified examples are known, though it is likely more are in existence. The first is called the “Toven Specimen,” after Albert Toven, a US Capitol Police officer. Toven claimed to have found the aluminum cent after it was dropped by a Congressman in the Rayburn Office Building. This example was certified MS62 by PCGS in 2005.
The second is called the “Lawrence Specimen,” after Harry Lawrence, who was an official at the Denver Mint in 1973. All of the 1.5 million cents produced by the Mint were made in Philadelphia, but about a dozen 1974-D aluminum cents were struck in Denver without authorization. When Harry Lawrence’s son had the coin certified by PCGS and sought to auction it, the US Mint claimed that it was stolen property. After a legal fight, the coin was surrendered to the Mint in 2016.
The Mint revisited the issue of the cent’s composition in the early 1980s after another rise in copper prices. This time, the Mint selected a lighter 99.2% zinc composition, plated with copper to retain the bronze color. Pennies made up to the present day are of this composition.