History of the Lincoln Cent 1909 – Present
1909 was an important year in Numismatics. This was the Centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. How would the US Mint honor our martyred President? President Washington refused a coin with his image on it as it was too close to what Great Britain did for its monarchs. We had just fought and won and long and bloody war with Great Britain for our freedom. Washington’s wishes were followed from 1792 until 1909. Washington and those following his tradition were ignored by then-President Teddy Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s idea was to revitalize our current coinage and return it to the classical images and standards set by the Greeks and Romans. Having enthusiastically pushed through new designs for all gold coins in circulation, his next target was the one-cent coin. The current one-cent coin was James Longacre’s Indian Head Cent which had been struck since 1859. Teddy had every right to request a change in the cent as he did with the circulating gold coinage.
In 1908, Roosevelt posed for a medal that would be given to workers who completed two (or more) years of service digging the Panama Canal. The medal was designed by Lithuanian immigrant sculptor Victor David Brenner. Roosevelt was impressed not only with Brenner’s sculpting talents but also with his admiration for one of his personal heroes – Abraham Lincoln. Brenner had already sculpted a plaque for Lincoln’s Centennial Birth and Roosevelt thought that Brenner had captured Lincoln’s portrait expertly. Roosevelt asked Brenner to submit several proposed designs and Brenner was extremely happy to comply.
Brenner submitted a design that was extremely close to what became the finished product. It had a formal portrait of Lincoln, facing right. Above Lincoln was the motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST” and the word “LIBERTY” to the left with the date “1909” to the right of the bust. The reverse had the denomination on two lines “ONE CENT” and the country of origin “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” inside of two wheat stalks. Above the wheat stalks was the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM.”
The American public found Brenner’s design artistically pleasing and they were happy to have this miniature portrait of their 16th President on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The coins were released from the San Francisco Mint in August of that year and there was a public uproar due to the presence of Brenner’s initials so prominently on the reverse. Most previous designers would settle for a single initial placed on the base of the central portrait but Brenner had all 3 of his initials, with periods separating them, on the lower reverse. Due to the unexpected outcry, only 484,000 of these San Francisco-minted coins were released, unknowingly at the time, making the “1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent” the key rarity!
More than 27 million coins with the designer’s initials were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. And more than 72 million coins were struck in Philadelphia without his initials. To satisfy the demand from collectors, 2,618 1909-dated 1910 continued the trend of coins being struck at Philadelphia and San Francisco. 1911 is the first year to have coins struck from those two mints but also at the Denver Mint. The mintages were very significant as Philadelphia alone struck nearly a quarter of a million cents between 1910 and 1911.
In 1914, the Denver Mint was only able to strike 1,193,000 having done over 15.8 million the year before. This created a natural rarity for the 1914-D Lincoln Cent. Years throughout the rest of the ‘teens’ until 1920 were fairly uneventful until a 1917 Double Die obverse was struck. In 1918, to satisfy a request from the sculptor, his “VDB” initials were restored, in a much smaller version, on the shoulder of Lincoln’s bust.
Demand continued to be strong. The Philadelphia Mint struck over 700 million cents between 1919 and 1920. But a rarity was created in 1922. While no coins were struck at either Philadelphia or San Francisco, the Denver Mint struck over 7 million 1922-D coins. But while no coins were struck that year in Philadelphia, some cents, only displaying the date began surfacing. What happened was the Denver Mint was short on dies for 1922 and striking 7 million coins put a strain on those dies. There are normal 1922-D coins and 3 distinct varieties of 1922 No D and Weak D coins. One of those varieties shows no signs of a D whatsoever and the reverse of that coin is well-struck. That particular coin commands a very healthy premium and is known as the “1922 Plain” Lincoln Cent, even though one does not technically exist. The other two varieties of “1922 Weak D” where part of the D is barely visible and the reverse is weakly struck, command a very small premium of normal 1922-D Cents.
There are some scarcer dates in the 1920s, such as 1924-D and 1926-S, but none of them are rare. The next key date we encounter is the truly scarce 1931-S, which had a mintage of only 866,000. There is 1936 with a Double Die obverse but after that the rest of the coins in the 1930s and early 1940s are common.
In 1943, as World War II raged in Europe and in Asia, there was a shortage of copper in the United States. It was used in airplane bomber parts and in shell casings, so the Government decided to make cents out of zinc-coated steel. These “white pennies” or “silver pennies” as the public calls them are neither white nor made of silver. The Mint made sufficient quantities to ensure ab adequate supply.
The true rarities of the Steel cents are the handful of 1943 genuine copper cents that were inadvertently struck as well as the few 1944 steel cents that were incorrectly struck. These extremely rare errors are in the $100,000 to $200,000 dollar range.
The other scarce coins are also “mistakes” – the 1944-D with the D struck over an S and the 1946-S with the S struck over a D. But one of the most well-known Lincoln Cents is 1955 with a Doubled Die Obverse.
Major doubling such as this is sometimes also found on the obverses of 1972, 1984 and 1985 cents and on the reverse on a small number of 1983 cents.
In 1959, the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln cent’s birth, the US Mint asked Frank Gasparro, then an Assistant Engraver, to design a new reverse, replacing the old “Wheat Ears” variety. He removed the wheat ears and replaced them with the Lincoln Memorial.
In 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, the US Mint struck 4 new reverse designs depicting Lincoln at different stages in his life – Birth and Early Childhood, Formative Years, Professional Life, and the Presidency.
In 2010 to date, the Mint gave us yet another reverse for the Lincoln Cent. The reverse now has a “Union Shield” to remind us of how hard Lincoln worked to preserve America as a single and unified country.
|Date||Type||Mintage||Fine Value||Unc Value|
|1909 VDB||Lincoln Wheat Ear||27,995,000||$20||$30|
|1909-S VDB||Lincoln Wheat Ear||484,000||$725||$1,500|
|1909||Lincoln Wheat Ear||72,702,618||$8||$20|
|1909-S||Lincoln Wheat Ear||1,825,000||$125||$350|
|1910 1916 – P||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Various||$5||$50|
|1910-1916 – D & S||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Various||$30||$200|
|1917-P, D & S to 1921 – P,D & S||Lincoln Wheat Ears||Various||$1||$80|
|1922 – No D||Lincoln Wheat Ear||7,160,000||$800||$12,500|
|1922 Weak D||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Included||$65||$500|
|1923 to 1931-D||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Various||$2||$60|
|1931-S||Lincoln Wheat Ear||866,000||$100||$200|
|1932 to 1955 – all mints||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Various||$1||$4|
|1955 Doubled Die||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Unknown||$1,200||$2,500|
|1956 to 1958 All||Lincoln Wheat Ear||Various||$.05||$.25|
|1959 to 1971 – All||Lincoln Memorial||Various||$.02||$.15|
|1972 Doubled Die||Lincoln Memorial||Unknown||$250||$675|
|1973 to 1983 – All||Lincoln Memorial||Various||$.01||$.05|
|1983 Double Die R||Lincoln Memorial||Unknown||$85||$375|
|1984 Double Die||Lincoln Memorial||Unknown||$50||$250|
|1984 to Present||Lincoln Memorial||Various||$.01||$.03|
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