The History of the Lincoln Penny

Fascinating Facts About Lincoln Pennies

Lincoln Memorial Cent

Frederic Lewis / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Victor David Brenner designed the U.S. Lincoln penny and placed his famous initials of "V.D.B." on the reverse of this beloved coin. It first entered circulation in 1909. It has endured with the same obverse design ever since, making it the longest-running coin type in U.S. history, and placing it among the most enduring coin types in world coinage history. The reverse design on the Lincoln Cent changed first in 1959, from the "wheat ears" type to the Lincoln Memorial design. Additionally, the United States Mint changed the metal composition of the penny several times. The story of the Lincoln Cent is full of fascinating details.

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 modern 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 there might have been a Saint-Gaudens penny, probably with a laurel-crowned Liberty head, or perhaps a majestic eagle perched upon a mountaintop.

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. The only "person" who had ever appeared on U.S. circulating coinage was the female personification known as "Miss Liberty."

There was a commemorative half-dollar coin issued in 1892 that featured Christopher Columbus on the obverse and his flagship Santa Maria on the reverse. The coins were issued to support the Columbian exposition in Chicago and sold for a dollar apiece. Many coins remain unsold and the substantial quantity was later released into circulation at face value or melted by the United States Mint. This was the first real person featured on an American coin, albeit not for circulation.

However, slain President Abraham Lincoln was already a revered icon at the turn of the 20th 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. penny was born.

In God We Trusta Lincoln Cent Afterthought?

The design process for the Lincoln penny 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 outside artists for various reasons. Since Brenner had only designed medals and never any coins intended for mass production, numerous revisions to the design were required before everyone was satisfied with the result. Brenner wanted a beautiful coin, but Barber needed a workable design that wouldn't wear out the coin dies prematurely, 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 to have Lincoln's face appear more towards the center of the coin. This alteration resulted in a large amount of space at the top of the coin design.

According to Lincoln Cent scholar David W. Lange, in his 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 to balance the design elements on the obverse of the coin. There was not a legal requirement at the time that this motto appears on the minor coinage, so adding it to the penny was entirely discretionary.

The Lincoln Pennies Are Finally Released

The general public highly anticipated the release of the new Lincoln pennies. 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 penny. The public had to wait a bit longer than necessary, though, as Mint officials didn't want to release any of the new pennies unless they could satisfy the demand of the public. 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 thrilled to see their beloved Abraham Lincoln 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 historical documents, 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 resented being passed over for the honor of making this coin's design. Additionally, he chafed at having to work with outside artists, and this might have agitated him to set up and then defame Brenner over the use of his three initials on the coin.

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 a well-established fact that Barber was adamant in disallowing Brenner from using a more discreet mark, such as the single initial "B" that was more in keeping with accepted 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 Lange, Barber could easily have moved the initials to the base of Lincoln's shoulder, where they ultimately ended up. The 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 remove the V.D.B. entirely.

The 1909 V.D.B. Lincoln Cent Frenzy

Engravers at the Mint removed the V.D.B. from the coin dies quickly because the public was clamoring for the new Lincoln pennies. The Mint suspended new penny production until Brenner's initials were removed. 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. This hoarding of pennies further exacerbating the already short supply.

Rumors began to circulate that the government was recalling the pennies with the V.D.B. initials on the reverse. The media vilified poor Victor David Brenner 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, artists at the Mint prepared a new set of working coin dies 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 are six distinct types of U.S. pennies issued in 1909:

  • Indian Head Cent: 1909 (mintage: 14.4 million)
  • Indian Head Cent: 1909-S (mintage: 309,000)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent: 1909 VDB (mintage: 28 million)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent: 1909-S VDB (mintage: 484,000)
  • 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, artists at the Mint restored the V.D.B. initials to the coin, where it remains to this day. They are located at the base of Lincoln's bust in tiny letters on the portion of the bust that angles downward 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 United States 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 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, they made Lincoln pennies of 1942 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.

The steel pennies weren't very popular, and in 1944 the Mint was forced to resume making brass-alloy pennies, wartime or not. The government denied that it would recall the steel cents 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 the U.S. armed forces indeed enacted policies to recover spent shell casings and to conserve other copper and tin waste, the reasons probably had more to do with the overall conservation of scarce metal resources than worry about what the composition of pennies. Nonetheless, some 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 the Mint made an estimated 20,000 to 24,000 coins with extreme doubling. The most remarkable fact surrounding the discovery of 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 that coincided with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's birth, the U.S. Mint gave in to popular pressure and created a new reverse design. In 1959, Frank Gasparro replaced the "Lincoln Wheat Ears" reverse with a rendition of the Lincoln Memorial. The main reason for this change was 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 the 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 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. The change happened early in the production of the 1960 cents. The Mint was having trouble with the digits of the date chipping on the coin dies. This problem was especially problematic on the numeral "0" and the date, 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 idea that the Treasury Department had was to freeze the dates on all 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 the supply of coins increased, and then the Mint restored mint marks to all United States coinage.

The Death of the Copper Penny

The United States Mint continued to strike the Lincoln Memorial penny in an alloy that consisted of 95 percent copper until 1982. The price of raw copper had risen so high that it cost more to make each penny than the penny was worth. Something had to change since the Mint was no longer making a profit.

The solution was to change the Lincoln Memorial Cent alloy to 97.5 percent zinc, with a pure copper coating that comprises 2.5 percent 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 Seven Major Varieties of Lincoln Cents

In 1982, this was called a "transitional" year because the Mint transitioned from one major alloy type to another. Under normal circumstances, we should have had four 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
  • 1982-S Proof Copper Cent