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The Lincoln Cent

April 1, 2019 0 Comments

The US Mint recently announced (February 2019) that the West Point Mint would strike some Lincoln cent with the ‘W’ mint mark, for special release as part of the annual sets of standard coins for 2019. This follows the un-publicized release of Lincoln cents with the Philadelphia ‘P’ mint mark in 2017 to mark the Mint’s 225th anniversary. That event needed a clarification by the Mint that these were not forgeries, so this time around they were prepared.

But why the interest in the smallest coin in our pockets? Unlike most other circulation coins, the penny’s obverse has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction in 1909. The coin was meant to have been designed by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but he died before his design was completed. That great American Beaux-Arts designer had been hired by a Mint dissatisfied with the artistic values of the nation’s coinage, and his designs would become iconic, particularly on gold coins.

Saint-Gaudens’ death meant that the task of designing the cent fell to Victor David Brenner, a sculptor whose legacy today is limited to that coin. Since 1909 was the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, he was chosen for the coin. This was a choice that would have concerned George Washington, who was opposed to putting presidents on coins, since it smacked too much of monarchy. Indeed, Lincoln was the first president to be on a coin in wide circulation, with his head replacing the Indian Head on the one cent coin in circulation since 1859. That, and ‘Lincoln Fever’ surrounding the centenary, made the release of the Lincoln cent a big public event. Long queues formed on release day, August 2, 1909, and because the number of coins an individual could buy was restricted – in Philadelphia to just two – a thriving market sprang up, with prices going briefly has high as a quarter, and then settling at 5 cents. Newspaper boys made a killing.

With Lincoln’s profile on the obverse, the reverse had the words ONE CENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, flanked on each side by a single head of wheat, giving that original penny the name Wheat Cent. In the early issues Brenner’s initials, VDB, came and went on the coin, and there are mint mark variations too, but the original design continued until 1958, when the wheat design on the reverse was replaced with an image of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, designed by Frank Gasparro, the Mint’s Chief Engraver at the time.

2009 was the bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth, and a special series of cents, with four different reverses, was released. These very collectible pennies show: the famous log cabin of his birth and childhood; Lincoln reading while taking a break from log-splitting; Lincoln as a lawyer, standing outside the Springfield, Illinois State Capital building; and the Capitol dome under construction, during Lincoln’s presidency.

In 2010 a new reverse appeared, showing the Union Shield, with a banner of the words E PLURIBUS UNUM laid over it.

With these design changes, and many minor variations over the years, and composition changes too, the Lincoln Penny is a great collectible, and one that could occupy a collector for some time, gathering all the permutations of this most humble coin of all – and isn’t that what coin collecting is all about?

Filed in: Informative

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