The 1981 penny is a valuable coin in circulation today. Although it is not worth as much as some of the rarest coins out there, it is still a desirable item for collectors.
In this blog post, we will take a look at the history and features of the 1981 penny, as well as its value and rarity. We will also explore some of the different types of errors and varieties that can be found on these coins. So if you are curious about the 1981 penny value, or you happen to have a few lying around, make sure to keep reading!
1981 Penny Value Chart
|Mint Mark||Good||Fine||Extremely Fine||Uncirculated|
|1981 No Mark Penny||$0.01||$0.01||$0.01||$0.35|
|1981 D Penny||$0.01||$0.01||$0.01||$0.35|
|1981 S Penny Proof – Type 1||$0.01||$0.01||$0.01||$3.30|
|1981 S Penny Proof – Type 2||$0.01||$0.01||$0.01||$28.00|
1981 Penny History
First, let’s take a look at the history of the penny minted in 1981. This coin was made of 95% copper and 5% zinc, just like virtually all pennies had been since the 1960s. And this composition wasn’t all that different from the 95% copper and 5% zinc and tin combination that had been used for the preceding one-hundred years.
On top of that, it was the same size and weight as previous pennies. It also contained the same design it had for decades, including the iconic profile of America’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln – a design originally engraved by US coin designer Victor D. Brenner in the early 1900s.
So what was so special about this penny? What has made its value increase over time?
The answer has to do with the penny made in 1982. Rising metal prices in the United States made it increasingly difficult to produce pennies. And when creating a penny nearly cost as much as they were worth, the US Mint made the decision to change the metal composition of the penny.
Instead of largely being composed of copper, pennies would now be largely composed of zinc. This significant change took place in 1982 – which means that the 1981 penny was the last one to be largely copper.
Nearly 13 billion of these copper-coated zinc cents (or “Zincoln pennies” as some people referred to them) were made in 1981. And with the price of copper increasing, the 1981 penny value is increasing too.
So, if you have one of these coins lying around, it’s worth more than the face value of a penny. In fact, depending on its condition, mint mark, and if it has any variety to it at all, it could be worth even more than that.
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Features of the 1981 Penny
Now that we’ve looked at the really interesting history behind the 1981 penny, let’s take a look at this coin’s special features.
The Obverse of the 1981 Penny
On the obverse side, you’ll find the iconic design of Abraham Lincoln with his profile facing right. This design was created in 1909 by US engraver Victor D. Brenner and has been featured on most American pennies since then.
The obverse also includes the words “In God We Trust” arching over the top and the word “LIBERTY” to the left of Lincoln. It also includes the year of mintage, 1981, and the mint mark of the location (unless of course, it was in Philadelphia, where there is no mint mark).
The Reverse of the 1981 Penny
On the reverse side, you’ll find a design featuring the Lincoln Memorial with the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” arching over it. The word “E PLURIBUS UNUM” (meaning “Out of Many, One”) is featured directly underneath that phrase. Beneath the Lincoln Memorial, the words “ONE CENT” arch along the bottom of the coin.
The image was created by US lead engraver Frank Gasparro and was chosen to replace Brenner’s wheat design on the penny’s reverse in 1959.
Other Features of the 1981 Penny
There are a few other features of the 1981 penny worth noting. Let’s look at them.
As mentioned earlier, the 1981 penny was made of 95% copper and 5% zinc. This is different from most other pennies minted after 1982, which were made mostly of zinc and with a thin layer of copper plating.
Some 1981 pennies also have a small letter below the date on the obverse side. This letter indicates which of the US Mints that made it. Coins with a “D” mark were minted in Denver, for example, and those minted in Philadelphia have no mint mark.
Weight and Size of the 1981 Penny
The 1981 penny weighs 3.11 grams and has a diameter of 19 millimeters (or 0.75 inches). It also has a thickness of 1.52 millimeters (or 0.0598 inches).
This is the same size and weight as most other pennies that have been minted for decades, but as you can imagine, this weight would change in the following year (1982) when the metal composition changed.
Instead of containing 95% copper, the 1982 penny contained mostly zinc. That contributed to the change in weight from 3.11 grams to only 2.5 grams – a difference of 0.61 grams.
The penny is the lowest denomination in the American currency, and it is the second smallest coin in size, beat only by the dime.
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1981 Penny Value Guide
Now that we’ve taken a look at the features and history of the 1981 penny, we can look in detail at its value. If you have one of these pennies hanging out in your pocket, you are likely looking forward to this section.
Condition is key when it comes to valuing any coin – not just the 1981 penny but in all coins. Coins that have been in circulation will usually have more wear and tear than those that are uncirculated, which means they’ll be worth less. The coin’s condition is graded on a scale from Good to Fine to Extremely Fine, with Uncirculated coins being the very best (and most valuable).
Here we will examine the 1981 penny’s worth per its condition, categorized by its US Mint location.
1981 No Mint Penny
Some 1981 pennies have no mint mark at all, which indicates that they were produced in Philadelphia. At this US Mint location, they produced a whopping 7,491,750,000 pennies, so they were certainly in no short supply. And given this year is in the recent past, the value hasn’t risen much.
A penny from this year in good condition, fine condition, or extremely fine condition is still worth its face value: 1 cent. However, an uncirculated one can be worth up to around 35 cents now!
1981 D Penny
Coins with a “D” mint mark were made in Denver. At the Denver location of the US Mint, they produced 5,373,235,000 pennies in 1981! Needless to say, between Philadelphia and Denver alone, there are plenty of these pennies in circulation.
Just like those pennies from the Philadelphia mint, the 1981 D pennies are usually worth their face value (1 cent), given that their coin condition is good, fine, or extremely fine. But if they are uncirculated, then they can be worth more – some online sources say up to 35 cents while other online sources say up to $8.00!
1981 S Penny Proof – Type 1
Coins with a “S” mint mark were made in San Francisco. These were proofs. A proof coin is one that was specially made for collectors and not released into circulation.
In 1981, there were two proofs made, the first being called Type 1. The “S” on these coins is a “Filled S.” A 1981 S penny proof (Type 1) is worth around $3.30. However, there was one Type 1 penny from 1981 in perfect condition that sold online for an extremely impressive $8,000!
1981 S Penny Proof – Type 2
In 1981, the US Mint also produced some Type 2 coins with a proof finish. The “S” on these coins is a “Clear S.” These coins really aren’t that different from the Type 1 coins besides the “S” having a smoother surface and appearing clearer to visualize.
A 1981 S penny proof (Type 2) can actually be worth up to $28.00!
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1981 Penny Error
As with all coins, some pennies have errors or varieties. These types of coins are usually more rare and more valuable than those without any special features. While there aren’t a lot of 1981 penny error coins (also called variety coins) that seemed to have surfaced, some of the possible 1981 penny varieties could include:
1981 Double Die Penny Errors
These errors are caused when the dies used to produce the coin’s image die twice, making it slightly thicker on either side of the coin in the image areas. A penny that has a double die error will be slightly thicker than the typical 1.52 millimeters (or 0.0598 inches) where there is an image.
1981 Off Center Penny Errors
These errors are caused when the penny is not properly centered when it is struck. It results in part of the design is cut off or appearing on the edge of the coin.
The value of these types of coins can vary depending on the degree to which they are off center, with the most valuable ones having almost no design on their edge.
1981 Broken Die Penny Errors
Broken die errors happen when a part of the die cracks or breaks off during production, creating an irregular-looking surface area or a distinct line in the surface area on the coin.
1981 Double Struck Penny Errors
Double strike errors happen when a coin is struck twice while in the press. A double-struck penny appears to have two images or two coins merged together, one on top of the other.
A 1981 double struck penny (and was also extremely off center) is known to have made its way through circulation and into the hands of a collector. It sold on eBay for around $80.00.
1981 Re-Punched Mint Mark Errors
Re-punched mint mark errors occur when the US Mint re-punches a mint mark onto a coin and it shows up twice, causing the mint mark to either appear “fuzzy” on the coin’s surface, or there are indeed two obvious punched marks next to each other.
Now that you know more about the different types of 1981 pennies, here are some of the most frequently asked questions about them:
Is the 1981 Penny Worth a Lot of Money?
1981 pennies, depending on the type, condition, and error, can be worth anywhere from 35 cents to $8,000! So, yes, some can even be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars! Overall, however, a 1981 penny is still worth its face value of 1 cent.
Are 1981 Pennies Rare?
Certain types of 1981 pennies are considered to be rare and valuable, such as the 1981 S Type 1 and 1981 Double Struck Penny Errors. Additionally, any penny with a special error or mint mark can also be worth more than its face value. Overall, however, most 1981 pennies are not considered rare but rather common and are still worth just 1 cent in circulated condition.
Who Designed the 1981 Penny?
The obverse side of the 1981 penny was designed by Victor D. Brenner, a Jewish-Lithuanian immigrant, who created the design in 1909.
The reverse side of the 1981 penny was designed by the US Mint’s Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro. He had been in charge of creating designs for coins since 1965 and was also responsible for the design of both the Kennedy half dollar and Susan B Anthony dollar. He passed away in 2021 in his nineties.
There you have it! Everything you ever wanted to know about the 1981 penny value!
1981 pennies have a rich history and can be worth anywhere from 35 cents to $8,000 depending on the type, condition and error. However, regardless of its value or rarity, most 1981 pennies are still worth 1 cent in circulated condition.
No matter what, these are exciting coins, so keep your eyes out for any interesting looking pennies during your next coin roll hunt! You never know what you’ll find. Happy collecting!
Do you have a 1981 penny in your collection? Tell us about it in the comments below.