At that time the authorities were searching for possible alternatives to copper that was urgently needed during the Second World War.
The only known surviving intact experimental all-glass penny has been sold at auction in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On January 5 at the Heritage Auctions sale it made $70,500 (£57,100).
A bidding battle between a phone bidder and a floor bidder pushed the cent’s selling price to more than double its $30,000 expected value. The penny was won by an American collector bidding on the phone.
“The present 1942 glass experimental piece is the only intact example discovered in nearly 75 years since the experiments,” said Mark Borckardt, senior numismatist and cataloguer at Heritage. “Although glass was never used for emergency US coinage, this piece represents a unique artefact of the ingenuity and determination of Mint officials and private industry.”
The coin was discovered and bought at a small auction in August 2016 by Roger W Burdette, author of the book United States Pattern and Experimental Pieces of World War II. Made of tempered, yellow-amber transparent glass obtained from Corning Glass Company, only two known surviving examples survive from this experiment: the intact example offered in the auction and another one that is broken in half, Burdette’s research shows.
“Wartime scarcity of copper required the US Mint to replace copper for the one cent coin,” Burdette said. “Plastics fabricators, particularly those who made buttons, began to experiment with pieces the size of a cent but the Blue Ridge Glass Company of Kingsport, Tennessee, requested an opportunity to experiment with glass in late 1942.”
Blue Ridge Glass officials described their manufacturing process and results in a seven-page report that is among US Mint documents in the National Archives. After considering various alternatives, such as glass, plastic and even rubber, the Mint eventually struck cents made of zinc-coated steel in 1943.
Despite his best efforts, Burdette does not know where the glass penny spent the last 75 years before he discovered it in August. “We know that before doing any of the work, Blue Ridge Glass had some of the employees carry some of the blanks in their pockets for a few days as a test, but the blanks chipped and created sharp edges,” Burdette said. “I think it would have been tough for the public to accept them as money.”
By the time the glass cent tests were completed in December 1942, it was too late for the US Mint to consider them as a viable replacement for the penny.
Money has been used in many different forms over the centuries. Salt was supposedly used as a form of currency to pay Roman soldiers, for example (hence the word ‘salary’), although this assertion has been questioned.
In the South Seas shells were an obvious material and such items appear at auction fairly often. This currency enjoyed very favourable exchange rates among the ethnographica offered at Tennants of Leyburn on December 16.
Best-seller of five lots was a collection including shell money from the Marshall Islands, New Britain and New Georgia, and five ring cowries from Ocean Island.
Contained in 11 display boxes with collector’s labels, the currency was estimated at £200-300 and a French bidder shelled out £900 (plus 18.5% buyer’s premium).
Maybe the buyer can try using it. According to papuanewguinea.travel, “the Tolai people of the Gazelle Peninsula, East New Britain, have continued to use the traditional shell money called ‘tabu’. They use the tabu as a contribution to the Tolai male secret society of tumbuan and dukduk, for distribution to people at death ceremonies, as payment of a bride price, for settling disputes, to purchase land or even garden food from local markets".