The following is excerpted from Clifford Mishler’s Coins: Questions & Answers
Q: I had always assumed that the term “white cents” referred to the steel cents of 1943, but my brother maintains that the term refers to cents of the 1850 and 1860s. Who is right?
A: Your brother. “White cents” is a term applied to the Flying Eagle cents of 1856 to 1858, and the Indian Head cents from 1859 into 1864. They were struck of a metal that contained 88 parts copper to 12 parts nickel, thus giving them a light or white appearance; in mid-1865, the composition was changed to an alloy of 95 parts copper to 5 parts tin and zinc, which gave them a rose or bronze color. At the same time, the alloy was changed, the weight and thickness of the cent was reduced by one-third, from 4.67 grams to 3.11 grams.