01 May 2013
Peter Whittington examines the Lincoln cent, one of the most successful American designs of all time ...
In an exlusive USA coins feature from Coin Collecting Magazine, Peter Whittington describes the background of the Lincoln cent, issued in the USA in 1909…
The origins of the USA Lincoln cent
The idea of honouring Abraham Lincoln on a USA cent coin received President Theodore Roosevelt’s enthusiastic endorsement in 1908 and sculptor Victor D Brenner was instructed to prepare designs for a Lincoln centenary coin.
The profile of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse was not unlike that sculpted by Brenner for the Centenary Medal. For the reverse Brenner produced two designs, both of them blatantly cribbed from the contemporary French 2 franc coin. The alternative reverse showed the standing figure of Liberty holding the fasces (copied from the French obverse) and an olive branch surmounted by the value in figure and word (from the French reverse).
Due to the similarity with the French coins, both of Brenner’s suggestions for the reverse were hastily abandoned.
On 17 February, Brenner submitted his completed models, the reverse being entirely new, with a single wheat ear on either side of the value, now rendered in words, with the name of the country below.
The revised models were sent to the Philadelphia Mint on 26 February, but again there was a minor hold-up. Brenner had inscribed his name in full round the foot of the obverse in the medallic fashion. The Director of the Mint, after consultation with the Treasury, decided that the initials V.D.B. alone could be permitted.
In the end, Brenner’s initials were placed on the reverse at the foot of the wheat stalks, but after production using the original dies had been completed at both Philadelphia and San Francisco the initials were quietly dropped.
Preparing for issue
The issue of the cent was scheduled for 2 August, 1909, but the controversy over Brenner’s initials almost delayed this. The demand for cents could not be held up any longer, hence the release of the VDB coins. It took almost three weeks to prepare fresh dies without the offending initials. But Brenner had the last laugh. In 1918 the initials VDB were restored to the cent, and from then onwards appeared beneath Lincoln’s shoulder.
Despite initial criticism of this coin it was to become the most successful American design of all time. It has lasted four times the span normally allotted by Congress.
During its very long life, of course, there have been changes large and little in this coin. For many years it had real spending power, for 1c was the domestic printed paper postal charge until World War II and as late as the Twenties the humble penny could purchase a small candy bar or a soft drink or pay a child’s local bus fare.
That it is in greater demand today than ever is entirely due to the American custom of adding sales tax to the retail price of goods, and consequently pennies are either required to make up the amount – or more usually are given in change.
End of the bronze age
The bronze penny was struck in great abundance every year until 1942 when, following America’s entry into World War II and the need to conserve stocks of copper for munitions, the decision was taken to suspend mintage of bronze cents.
Even so, the mintage figures in 1942 were astronomical. A few cents struck on bronze blanks are believed to exist with the date 1943, although none was officially sanctioned. Instead, the Treasury Department decreed that zinc-coated steel should be used for the time being (see illustration above).
Copper production rose dramatically in 1943 and the crisis gradually disappeared. When the time came to strike cents for 1944 sufficient copper was available for the purpose so that normal production could be resumed.