Washington — The treasurer of the United States, Angela M. Buchanan, told Congress the other day that, with their permission, she planned to take the copper out of the copper penny. It will still look like copper but it will have a copper wash, or what is described as a "copper surface electroplated" on the outside skin. How Abe Lincoln will feel about this I don't know. On one side of the new coin will be old Abe and the words "Liberty" and "In God we Trust" and the date. On the other side will be the Lincoln Memorial, "United States of America" and "E Pluribus Unum." And a thousand years from now when archaeological numismatists dig up a one-cent piece in the debris of an old US city they will be able to designate the great divide: real copper, before 1981; imitation, after 1981.
Personally I hate change. But they have already changed most of the coinage. First went gold. Since 1934 when FDR took us off the gold standard no gold coins have circulated. Starting in 1964 the Treasury cut down the silver all newly minted dimes and quarters. (You can see the alloy if you look at the edge of a make-believe coin, through the milled rim.) The five-cent piece seems to be sailing on very much as before though it won't buy a nickel Hershey bar anymore (nor will a penny buy a stick of chewing gum).
Why is Angela Buchanan fooling around with the penny? Very practical reasons , she says. Copper has been fluctuating erratically. Supplying coinage for american is a big problem. Back in 1977 the Mint supplied $11.5 billion in circulating coinage and now it is $16 billion. Pockets and purses sag with coins that don't seem to buy anything. And so, testified Treasurer Buchanan:
"The largest increase in demand recently has been for the one-cent coin. Demand was so strong last year that we produced one-fourth more, pushing production levels to the limits of the Mint's capacity."
There was also a skyrocketing world copper price. People seem to have hoarded the humble one-cent piece. normally there's an 8 percent annual growth in demand for the penny; last year it was three times that.
Back in 700 B.C. in Lydia they had an electrum coin, which was a mixture of silver and gold. Now the penny is going electrum too, at least in a copper and zinc mix. Zinc is the conservative, nonvolatile, reliable metal that nobody hoards. The current one-cent coin is an alloy of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc; the Buchanan penny would be 97.6 percent zinc and 2.4 percent copper.
The Mint says the change isn't its fault: it's the way the copper price is jumping around. Between December 1979 and February 1980, copper skipped from 93 cents to $1.43 cents a pound. Now it's back to 86 cents. This indecisiveness won't do -- not in a circulating medium. At $1 a pound, the Mint says, there is speculative withdrawal of one-cent coins. Above $1.12 the cost to produce a penny exceeds its face value. And so-o-o the Mint worries that its stamping and milling machines might lag demand, and a national penny shortage ensue.
The zinc penny will save the Treasury $25 million a year now, and $50 million if copper reaches $1.12 a pound. Some ask, why have pennies at all? England has withdrawn farthings and half pennies. Will cent pieces be a thing of the past since they don't seem to do much except even out the cost of sales tax? For a while at least we'll probably have them around. The new coin, incidentally, will be 20 percent lighter. That's all right for coin slug discriminators used in vending machines and for processing machines. Treasurer Buchanan thinks. It will cause "some inconvenience" at banks which count their one-cent coins by weight. The public will still be able to distinguish the coins by weight and by date. So adjust yourself to the changing era and to electroplated c opper and zinc Lincolns.