The History of the Lincoln Cent

Fascinating Facts About Lincoln Pennies

Lincoln Memorial Cent
Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The U.S. Lincoln Cent, designed by Victor David Brenner (whose initials V.D.B. are famously associated with the beloved coin design he created) first entered circulation in 1909. It has endured with the same obverse ("heads" side) design ever since, making it the longest running coin type in U.S. history, and placing it among the longest running coin types ever in world coinage history. The reverse design on the Lincoln Cent changed once, in 1959, from the "wheat ears" type to the current Lincoln Memorial design, and the metal the Lincoln penny is made out of has seen several changes.

The story of the Lincoln Cent is full of fascinating details!

Lincoln Cents - Before the Beginning

The Lincoln Cent might never have come to pass had it not been for a stubbornly persistent U.S. President by the name of Theodore Roosevelt and the untimely death of a great sculptor. Roosevelt had an eye for art and felt that America's coins were quite uninspiring compared to those of European nations. His acquaintanceship with renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens reinforced this belief, and soon Roosevelt had directed Saint-Gaudens to begin redesigning all of America's coins. Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens died before he could finish his work, or we would likely have had a Saint-Gaudens penny, probably with a laurel-crowned Liberty head, or perhaps an eagle in flight.

The Lincoln Penny Broke an American Taboo

It was considered unseemly in America to place the image of a real person, either living or dead, on a circulating coin.

In fact, the only "person" who had ever appeared on official U.S. circulating coinage was the female personification known as "Miss Liberty". However, slain President Abraham Lincoln was already a revered icon at the turn of the twentieth century, and when Roosevelt saw sculptor Victor David Brenner's bronze plaque of Lincoln, the idea to feature this image of Lincoln on the U.S. Cent coin was born.

In God We Trust - a Lincoln Cent Afterthought?

The design process for the Lincoln Cent was challenging at times for both U.S. Mint personnel and artist Brenner. U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber was resistant to working with an outsider for various reasons, and since Brenner had only designed medals (but never any coins meant for mass production output) numerous revisions were required before everyone was satisfied with the result. Brenner wanted a beautiful coin, of course, but Barber needed a workable design -- something that wouldn't wear out the dies too quickly, but still strike up well on both sides of the coin.

In the end, it was decided to lower the placement of Lincoln's bust (and thus lop off some torso area below the shoulders) in order to have Lincoln's face appear more towards the center of the coin. This alteration resulted in a large amount of empty space at the top. According to Lincoln Cent scholar David W. Lange, in his excellent book "The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents", U.S. Mint Director Frank A. Leach probably had the motto In God We Trust added to the penny design in order to balance the design elements. There was not a legal requirement at the time that this motto appear on the minor coinage, so adding it to the penny was entirely discretionary.

The Lincoln Pennies Are Finally Released

The release of the new Lincoln pennies was highly anticipated by the general public. The forthcoming issue had gotten a fair amount of publicity, and coupled with the numerous delays in producing the master dies, an eager public awaited the new Cent. This public had to wait a bit longer than strictly necessary, though, as Mint officials didn't want to release any of the new pennies at all unless they could satisfy the entire demand. Therefore, the Mint struck more than 25 million pennies before finally releasing the coins on August 2, 1909.

At first, the news reports were ecstatic. Everyone loved the new coin, and people were generally thrilled to see their beloved Abraham Lincoln being honored in such a fashion. However, behind the scenes, a stink was brewing over the inclusion of Brenner's initials on the reverse of the coin.

The Scandal Over the V.D.B. Lincoln Cents

The Treasury Secretary at the time was a man named Franklin MacVeagh. For some reason that isn't clear in the historical documents that have come down to us, he suddenly took exception to Brenner's initials (V.D.B.) appearing on the coin's reverse, despite having approved the design previously. (Although there is no proof, speculation implies that U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who resented being passed over for the honor of making this coin design, and who chafed at having to work with outside artists, might have agitated behind the scenes to set up and then defame Brenner over the use of his initials. According to this theory, Barber encouraged Brenner to permit placement of his initials in rather large letters on the reverse and then went behind Brenner's back to cause Brenner to be seen as vain and grasping by the inclusion of the letters. Whatever the truth, it is well-established fact that Barber was adamant in disallowing Brenner from using a more discreet mark, such as the single initial "B" which was more in keeping with acceptable practice at the time.

Whatever the reason, Secretary MacVeagh suddenly decided that the V.D.B. was too prominent, and demanded its removal. According to author Lange (noted above), Barber could easily have moved the initials to the base of Lincoln's shoulder, (where they ultimately ended up, and which subtle placement would have been in keeping with MacVeagh's desires and acceptable practice) but Barber claimed that it was very difficult technically to do so. (Barber's claim was belied by the addition of the initials to the base of Lincoln's shoulder in 1918 shortly after Barber's death.) At the time, however, it was decided that the best and most expedient solution was to simply remove the V.D.B. entirely.

The 1909 V.D.B. Lincoln Cent Frenzy

The V.D.B. had to be removed from the coin dies quickly because the public was clamoring for the new Lincoln pennies. New penny production had been suspended until the V.D.B.

problem was solved. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh made the interesting decision to let the public in on the impending change to the new penny, and the predictable result was that people began hoarding the existing Lincoln Cents, further exacerbating the already short supply. Rumors began to circulate that the government was recalling the V.D.B.'s. Poor Victor David Brenner (who designed the coin, and for whom the V.D.B. stands) was vilified by the media as being arrogant and vain, even though it was U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber who determined the size and placement of these initials!

The First Lincoln Cent Varieties Are Issued

By August 12, 1909, a new set of working coin dies had been prepared without the V.D.B. on them. The new issue of pennies soon followed, creating the first major die variety of the Lincoln Cent series. It is worth noting that there were actually six distinct types of U.S. Cents issued in 1909:

  • Indian Head Cent - 1909 (Mintage: 14.4 million)
  • Indian Head Cent - 1909-S (Mintage: 309 thousand)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909 VDB (Mintage: 28 million)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909-S VDB (Mintage: 484 thousand)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909 (Mintage: 73 million)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909-S (Mintage: 1.8 million)

Although there are some minor die varieties among the various year 1909 Lincoln pennies, the V.D.B. is by far the most well known.

In 1918, the V.D.B. was restored to the coin, where it remains to this day. It can be found at the base of Lincoln's bust, in tiny little letters on the portion of the bust that angles downward right near the bottom.

The Wartime Lincoln Cents

The next major event in the Lincoln Cent saga is the change of coin metals made in 1942 and 1943. The U.S. was fighting in the massive World War II, facing enemies on two major fronts (Japan and Europe) and the government determined that it needed all the copper and tin it could possibly get its hands on to make munitions for the war effort. In 1942, the U.S. Mint took all but a trace of tin out of the cent alloy, which technically changed the metal from bronze to brass. Because the Mint had a supply of existing (bronze) coining strip already prepared, the Lincoln Cents of 1942 are made from both alloys.

The Lincoln Cents Nobody Wanted

By late 1942, the situation had become extreme enough that it was decided to remove all copper from the Lincoln Cents beginning in 1943. Following some hasty experimentation, the U.S. Mint decided to make the pennies from an alternative alloy consisting of steel coated with a thin layer of zinc. This change resulted in a shiny silver penny that was easily confused with a dime when new, and that turned into a corroded piece of junk once the thin zinc coating wore off. Furthermore, the pennies were useless in most vending machines because the anti-fraud technology of the time saw the magnetic steel pennies as slugs!

Needless to say, the steel pennies weren't very popular, and in 1944 the Mint was forced to resume making brass-alloy pennies, wartime or not. Although the government denied that the steel cents would be recalled (hoping to prevent further penny shortages and hoarding), after the war the Treasury Department quietly directed the banks to remove the steel cents from circulation whenever they encountered them. There are varying stories regarding the ultimate disposition of the 68 million recovered steel pennies. One tale has the government dumping them all into the Pacific Ocean, but the most reliable accounts state that they were melted down at the behest of the Mint.

Lincoln Pennies Made From Melted Bullets

One of the more enduring myths about the Lincoln Cent is that the postwar pennies were all made from melted bullets, artillery shells and other copper-based military findings. Although it is true that the U.S. armed forces enacted policies to recover spent shell casings and to conserve other copper and tin waste, the reasons probably had more to do with overall conservation of scarce metal resources than a worry about what to make pennies out of. Nonetheless, a quantity of spent shell casings eventually did make their way to the Mint, which contributed to the brass coining alloy used for Lincoln Cents in 1944 through 1946. In 1947, the Lincoln Cent alloy returned to the bronze composition used before the war.

The Famous 1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cents

No history of the Lincoln Cent would be complete without a mention of the famous 1955 Doubled Die Penny. This remarkable minting error was the result of a coin die getting two separate impressions hubbed into it. The result was that an estimated 20,000 to 24,000 coins were struck which had extreme doubling. The most remarkable fact surrounding the discovery of the 1955 doubled die pennies is that the U.S. Mint caught the mistake before the coins left the Mint, but decided to let them out anyway, hoping nobody would notice!

The 1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cent was a turning point in U.S. numismatics. Due to the great publicity the error received, more people than ever began taking an interest in collecting coins, and the hobby of searching for die varieties moved into the mainstream.

The Lincoln Cent Gets a New Reverse

As the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent approached (which coincided with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's birth), the U.S. Mint gave in to popular pressure and created a new reverse design. Beginning in 1959, the reverse side of the Lincoln Cent featured the Lincoln Memorial building, which was dedicated in 1922.

The Lincoln Wheat Ears reverse was replaced with the Lincoln Memorial reverse, designed by Frank Gasparro, in 1959. The main reason for this change was simply that people were getting a little tired of the Wheat reverse as it approached its 50th anniversary. Various proposals were put forward for a new reverse type, including a depiction of the log cabin in which Lincoln was born. In the end, the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial building was chosen, along with a release date that marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth: February 12, 1959.

As is the case with nearly all first-year coin design types, people saved them in mint state in large numbers, making the 1959 Lincoln Memorial an easy-to-find coin in the higher grades. Usually, the second year coins of a new type are generally ignored by all but the collecting community, but this wasn't the case with the 1960 Lincoln Memorial Cents.

The Lincoln Memorial 1960 Large and Small Date Cents

Although the 1960 Large Date and Small Date varieties are nowhere near the seminal types that the 1955 Doubled Die penny was, the public took notice of a change in the size of the date that was made early in the production of the 1960 cents. Apparently, the Mint was having trouble with the digits of the date chipping on the dies (especially the zero), so the Mint made a new master die in mid-year. The last time the U.S. Mint is believed to have changed the master tools in mid-year for the Lincoln Cent was back in 1909, when they removed the V.D.B. from the reverse.

The U.S. Mint Penalizes Coin Collectors

Due to various economic factors, a serious coin shortage ensued in the U.S. in the early 1960s, and by 1963 the government was grasping at straws trying to solve the problem. One of the Mint's solutions was to remove the mint marks from the coins, in the hope that coin collectors wouldn't save as many of them if there were fewer varieties to keep. Another bright idea was to freeze the dates on the coins, such that 1964 dated pennies are reputed to have been struck as late as 1966! The U.S. Mint was working around the clock, churning out coins at full capacity, but it took until 1968 before coin supplies eased up and the mint marks were restored.

The Death of the Copper Penny

The Lincoln Memorial Cent continued to be struck in an alloy that consisted of 95% copper until 1982. The price of copper bullion had risen so high that it cost more to make each penny than the penny was worth. Since the Mint was no longer making a profit, something had to be done.

The solution was to change the Lincoln Memorial Cent alloy to 97.5% zinc, with a pure copper coating that comprises 2.5% of the total alloy. The hope was that the pennies would still look the same, while the government didn't lose its shirt manufacturing them. Although there were some problems early on, with the coins corroding quickly and the plating becoming streaky or bubbled, overall the zinc-alloy cents have a been a great success.

1982 Had 7 Major Varieties of Lincoln Cents

1982 is called a "transitional" year because the Mint was transitioning from one major alloy type to another. Under normal circumstances, we should have had 4 different 1982 Lincoln Cent varieties: one from each active Mint in copper, and one from each Mint in zinc. However, the Mint also made a rare master die change in 1982, resulting in another of the so-called "Large Date and Small Date" variety types. When it was all said and done, these were the seven major circulation varieties of 1982 Lincoln Cents:

  • 1982 Copper Large Date
  • 1982 Copper Small Date
  • 1982-D Copper Large Date
  • 1982 Zinc Large Date
  • 1982 Zinc Small Date
  • 1982-D Zinc Large Date
  • 1982-D Zinc Small Date

In addition to these, a 1982-S Proof Copper Cent was struck.

Sources: "The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents," by David. W. Lange; "Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins," by Walter Breen; the "Red Book" aka "A Guide Book of United States Coins," by R.S. Yeoman; and my own knowledge of Lincoln Cents.