The “Revolutionary” Lincoln Cent
BY ED REITER
These are among the adjectives people use to describe the Lincoln cent.
"Revolutionary" isn’t the kind of description you often hear. The fact is, though, that’s just what it was when it made its first appearance in 1909.
Early United States coins bore allegorical images – portraits of female figures symbolizing Liberty. Real people sometimes served as models, but real historical people never were shown. As in many aspects of American life, George Washington pointed the way for that tradition. Other Founding Fathers wanted Washington’s portrait used on U.S. coins, but he opposed the idea, fearing he would be likened to a monarch.
The first U.S. cents were large copper coins, heavier than today’s half dollar. Early Americans wanted full intrinsic value in their coins, even copper cents. By the mid-1800s, though, the large cents were literally wearing a hole in people’s pockets, and this – coupled with rising copper costs – led Uncle Sam to introduce a much smaller "penny," the same diameter as the modern version.
At first, the smaller cents continued the allegorical tradition, carrying portraits first of a flying eagle and then of an Indian maiden. At the start of the 20th century, though, President Theodore Roosevelt set in motion dramatic redesign of U.S. coins. In the midst of this sweeping change, the nation was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth – and plans were made to honor him on a coin.
The task of designing the coin fell to Victor David Brenner, a talented young artist who had come to America from his native Lithuania. In 1908, Brenner and Roosevelt met while the artist was designing a service medal for workers who helped build the Panama Canal. Brenner had created a Lincoln medal and plaque, and these impressed the president, who sent a note to the Treasury urging the use of similar Lincoln artwork on a coin.
In retrospect, the humble cent was the perfect coin for Lincoln, who had always been so down-to-earth and modest. Initially, however, Brenner fashioned models for a Lincoln half dollar. But the Barber (or Liberty Head) half dollar hadn’t yet been issued for the legally required minimum of 25 years, so the Treasury chose the cent, which had displayed the Indian Head design for half a century.
The new coin startled the public when it made its first appearance in August 1909. But widespread affection for Lincoln, together with the simple yet elegant design, soon overcame misgivings about this break with tradition.
Protests did arise about the size of the letters "V.D.B" (for Victor David Brenner), which the artist placed at the base of the coin’s reverse. Critics termed these "gigantic" and demanded their removal. Within three days, the Treasury complied – unwittingly creating a famous rarity. Only 484,000 Lincoln cents had been struck at the San Francisco Mint with the three offending initials, and these 1909-S V.D.B. cents have been highly prized collectibles ever since. Today’s Lincoln cents, by contrast, commonly have mintages of 4 billion or more.
The Lincoln cent seems anything but revolutionary today. It has been around now for 94 years – far longer than any other coin in U.S. history – and seems certain to remain at least until its own 100th anniversary in 2009. It has been produced by the billions – in greater quantities, in fact, than all the other coins of all the nations on Earth of all time – combined! What’s more, it blazed a trail for depiction of real-life persons on other U.S. coins – and all six of the nation’s current circulating coins bear such portraits.
What a difference a century makes!