Modern United States coins — for the purposes of this article, those that have been struck since the 1950s — seem so commonplace in circulation that some hobbyists bid little attention to them as collectibles. Yet, as we’ve seen over the past several decades, many of the coins once figuring as ubiquitous members of American commerce have a way of simply vanishing before our very eyes.
Take the 90% silver dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, for example… They were once a staple of everyday pocket change. Yet, within a few years of copper-nickel coinage’s arrival in 1965 they were all but gone. Kennedy Half Dollars never really circulated extensively. Nor did Eisenhower Dollars or Susan B. Anthony Dollars. The Sacagawea Dollars and Presidential Dollars spent a minute in circulation before they, too, faded from the scene.
Now, there are four other coins that, just a handful of years ago, could be found with relative ease in circulation. Yet, these coins, too, are on the brink of de facto extinction from circulation. So, what coins are they? Let’s take a look…
Lincoln Wheat Cents
Billions upon billions were served to the public, and we aren’t talking about a certain type of fast-food hamburger. The Lincoln Wheat Cent was in production for a span of half a century, and most years saw many millions made, and a handful of annual calendars saw the spawning of well over a billion each year. So, how can it be that the Lincoln Wheat Cent, which was last struck in 1958 but saw meaningful representation in circulation for many years afterward, simply disappear?
Collectability of these coin is what initially siphoned Lincoln Wheat Cents out of circulation. Even during their time in production, they were actively sought by collectors building sets straight from circulation. By the 1950s, the countless Lincoln Cent enthusiasts who collected these coins had plenty of rarities to search for, including the 1909-S, 1909-S VDB, 1914-D, 1922 No D, 1931-S, 1943 Bronze, and 1955 Doubled Die Cents among them.
With the introduction of the Lincoln Memorial Cent in 1959, Wheat Cents were rendered obsolete, and even the most common dates became desirable for collectors. The 95% copper content of these coins only further enhanced their desirability among bullion seekers. Copper bullion prices, which saw a major spike in the early 1970s, experienced a sustained hike in the early 1980s, leading to a new, cheaper metallic composition for the Lincoln Cent and also segueing into the next coin that’s waning from circulation.
Pre-1982 Lincoln Memorial Cents
A couple decades ago it may have been hard for some to imagine the Lincoln Memorial Cent would ever see the proverbial sunset. Yet, the end for this popular Lincoln Cent subtype came along in 2008, when it was replaced by a special series of reverse designs honoring the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1809; that one-year commemorative series was supplanted by the permanent redesign of the reverse, which now carries a Union Shield motif. Yet, decades prior to that, the Lincoln Memorial Cent saw the end of another era – the bronze age, as it were.
Rising copper prices in the 1970s led to the discontinuation of the traditional 95% copper, 5% zinc composition for the Lincoln Cent midway through 1982. That metallic profile was substituted by a copper-coated zinc format, which continues to this day. Increasing price increases for copper during the early 21st century brought nationwide attention to the increasingly valuable copper content of bronze Lincoln Memorial Cents, which are now being pulled from circulation by countless copper hoarders. The bronze Lincoln Memorial Cents weigh 3.11 grams versus 2.5 grams for the zinc – a key determinant for those wanting to tell the difference between copper- and zinc-based 1982 Lincoln Cents.
It should be noted that, as of this writing in 2021, it is illegal in the United States to melt one-cent coins. Therefore, those who are cashing in on bronze Lincoln Cents can only do so on a purely speculative basis. No matter though, as the coins continue disappearing. It may still be too soon to call it curtains for the post-1981 copper-plated zinc Lincoln Memorial Cents still in circulation. However, they are becoming noticeably scarcer in circulation, which is perhaps a function of both the increasing prevalence of the Lincoln Union Shield Cents that replaced them and the fact that the zinc-based Lincoln Cents are highly susceptible to corrosion and other environmental damage.
Pre-1960 Jefferson Nickels
Jefferson Nickels dated prior to 1960 have been high on the lists of circulation-seekers for some time now, but these pieces – generally quite common in worn grades – are really beginning to fall away from commerce. Technically, any pre-2004 Jefferson Nickel is obsolete in that the original Jefferson obverse and Monticello reverse pairing hasn’t been in production since the Westward Journey commemoratives hit the streets in 2004; a three-quarter view of Jefferson’s bust became permanent on the coin’s obverse in 2006, when the Monticello reverse returned after a two-year-hiatus.
Still, the Jefferson Nickels made from the inception of the series in 1938 through 1959 are the pieces that seem to attract the most attention. It’s possible there is some numismatic perception that coins from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are old enough to reflexively save. And, sure, there’s some truth to this. These days, all pre-1960 Jefferson Nickels hold at least miniscule numismatic premiums in worn grades.
There are plenty of more valuable Jefferson Nickel dates worth saving from the pre-1960 period. These include the 1930-D and 1950-D key dates, the 35% silver wartime nickels, and varieties such as the 1954-S S Over D and 1955-D D Over S. The Jefferson Nickel short set run of 1938-1961 has long been collected by pocket change searchers, while in more recent years collectors have taken their vintage Jefferson Nickel collections to the PCGS Set Registry.
1776-1976 Bicentennial Quarters
The 1976 Bicentennial Quarters were struck to the tune of approximately 1.7 billion pieces, taking into account all of the circulation and proof issues across all mints and metallic compositions. Yet, the Bicentennial Quarter, a coin once roundly plentiful in circulation, has become a seldom-seen anomaly in pocket change and bank rolls.
There could be many explanations for this… Prior to the launch of the 50 State Quarters in 1999, the 1976 Bicentennial Quarter spent more than two decades as essentially the only novelty design in modern U.S. circulation. But with the release of the various Commemorative Quarter programs beginning around the turn of the 21st century, untold millions of people were looking through their quarters to collect each of the new designs, and the Bicentennial Quarters also enjoyed renewed public attention. The 1976 Quarters were saved alongside the more contemporary quarters honoring each of the states and U.S. territories.
Much like the circulated specimens of the copper-nickel “State Quarter” issues of more recent vintage, worn examples of the base-metal 1976 Bicentennial Quarter are worth only face value. Yet, on the increasingly scarce occasion that examples turn up in circulation, they usually earn the interest of the people who received them in change during a transaction and held them aside. Perhaps someday circulated specimens of the copper-nickel 1976 Bicentennial Quarters will be worth more than face value, but their real value at this time might be in luring more new collectors into our hobby.