Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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U.S. coinage shaped by war: World War II
In 1943, U.S. Mint was competing with the military for the nation’s copper and nickel. The result was some 500 million white, zinc-plated steel cents as well as uniquely marked silver nickels. For Hawaii, overprinted currency in several denominations was provided. In case the islands were captured the paper money could be demonetized.
In the depths of World War II, metals used for America’s coinage reflected the exigencies of battle and wartime prosperity at home, as the Mint tried new metals to replace those needed for weaponry abroad.
We continue a five-part look at the way war has shaped America’s coinage.
Part four: World War II
World War II challenged the Mint. After a decade of low-production because of the Great Depression, sudden wartime prosperity dramatically increased the demand for coins.
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Competing, though, for the nation’s copper and nickel was the wartime need for artillery shells and armor plate. The result was zinc-plated steel cents and silver nickels.
In 1943, the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco produced some 500 million white steel cents. They were instantly recognizable in change and were prized by children as lucky coins for decades after.
Then the artillery shells were recycled at the Mint from 1944 through 1946 and used to make cent planchets. The shellcase coins are a lighter color than earlier and later pieces because the alloy lacked the trace of zinc used in other copper cents.
War nickels, produced from mid-1942 through 1945, were composed of 35 percent silver and had a large Mint mark on the reverse above Monticello. The large letter was meant to allow for easy identification so the silver could be retrieved after the war.
All other coins remained unchanged throughout the war. Some paper money, though, was changed for war reasons.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States became concerned that the enemy might occupy the islands. In answer to the threat, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced special paper money for use in Hawaii. These notes had the word HAWAII printed on them in large letters and could not be taken off the island. If Hawaii had been overrun, the bills would have been demonetized.