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The History of the Lincoln Cent

Fascinating Facts About Lincoln Pennies

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Lincoln Wheat Cent Obverse

Lincoln Wheat Cent Obverse

Photo courtesy of Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.
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 acquaintainship 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, specultation 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 intials 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 adament 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 intials 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 expedient was to simply remove the V.D.B. entirely.

Next page - The public frenzy that ensues when people learn that the V.D.B. "shouldn't have been there..." History of the Lincoln Cent, Part 2

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