Lincoln Wheat Cent Design (1909 – 1958)
Based on a plaque executed several years earlier President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed with the talents of sculptor Victor David Brenner that Roosevelt commissioned him to design a new cent coin. It marked a radical departure from the accepted styling of United States coins. When the Lincoln one cent coin made its initial appearance in 1909 it was at a time that previously there had been a strong feeling against using portraits on our coins, but public sentiment stemming from the 100th anniversary celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birth proved stronger than the long-standing prejudice.
Why is the 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent so popular?
Cents with and without Brenner's initials were struck at both the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints. Coins struck at Philadelphia bear no mint mark while those struck at San Francisco were marked with an S. While almost 28 million Philadelphia VDB cents were struck, making them quite common, the 1909-S with Brenner's initials (commonly called the 1909-S VDB) is the rarest Lincoln cent by date and mint-mark, with only 484,000 released for circulation.
The obverse or heads side was the Lincoln Bust designed by Victor David Brenner, as was the original reverse, depicting two stalks of wheat known as wheat pennies struck 1909–1958. The coin has seen several reverse, or tails, designs and now bears one by Lyndall Bass depicting a Union shield. All coins struck by the United States government with a value of 1/100 of a dollar are called cents because the United States has always minted coins using decimals. The penny nickname is a carryover from the coins struck in England, which went to decimals for coins in 1971.
Interestingly, there are more one cent coins produced than any other denomination. In its life span, this coin has weathered two world conflicts, one of which changed it materially, because metals play a vital part in any war effort.
At the time of World War II, the one-cent coin was composed of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. These metals were denied to the Mint for the duration of the war, making it necessary for the Mint to seek a substitute material. After much deliberation, even including consideration of plastics, zinc-coated steel was chosen as the best in a limited range of suitable materials.
On January 1, 1944, the Mint was able to adopt a modified alloy, the supply being derived from expended shell casing which when melted furnished a composition similar to the original, but with a faint trace of tin. The original weight of 48 grains was also restored.
In 1952, the Mint considered replacing the Lincoln cent with a new design by Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts, but Mint officials feared that the incoming Eisenhower administration would be hostile to replacing a Republican on the cent. Several thousand 1955 pieces were struck with a doubled die, and display doubling of the date. The Mint was aware of the pieces, and knew they were somewhere within a large production lot, but opted to release them, rather than destroy the entire lot. The variety did not become widely known until several years later. Now one of the most popular and valuable varieties for collectors is the 1955 Double Die Obverse.
Lincoln Memorial Cent Design (1959 – 2008)
On Sunday morning, December 21, 1958, President Eisenhower's press secretary, James Hagerty, issued a press release announcing that a new reverse design for the cent would begin production on January 2, 1959. The new design, by Frank Gasparro, had been developed by the Treasury in consultation with the Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission. Approved by the President and by Secretary of the Treasury Robert B. Anderson, the new design featured the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The redesign came as a complete surprise, as word of the proposal had not been leaked. The coin was officially released on February 12, 1959, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, although some pieces entered circulation early.
The selected design was the result of an internal competition among the Mint's engravers. Gasparro did not go in person to see the Lincoln Memorial, a place he had never visited. According to Anderson, Gasparro created an "impressive" image of the Memorial, however, Taxay states that the design "looks at first glance like a trolley car". Numismatic historian Walter Breen describes Gasparro's design as "an artistic disaster".
Copper prices began to rise in 1973, to such an extent that the intrinsic value of the coin approached a cent, and citizens began to hoard cents, hoping to realize a profit. The Mint decided to switch to an aluminum cent. Over a million and a half such pieces were struck in the second half of 1973, though they were dated 1974. At congressional hearings, representatives of the vending machine industry testified that aluminum cents would jam their equipment, and the Mint backed away from its proposal. Mint director Mary Brooks sought the return of samples which had been distributed to members of Congress, but 14 remained missing, with the recipients affecting not to know what had become of them. One aluminum cent was donated to the Smithsonian Institution for the National Numismatic Collection another was reportedly found by a US Capitol Police Officer.
In 1981, faced with another rise in the price of copper, the Mint decided to change the composition of the cent to copper-covered zinc. After contract difficulties and production delays, the first such cents were struck at the West Point Mint (without mint-mark) on January 7, 1982. Denver did not convert to the new composition until October 21. A few pieces were struck by error in bronze dated 1983 and are extremely rare. A number of small changes were made to the obverse design in the 1990's and early 2000's.
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