A one-cent symbol of a single and united country

Recent news stories have told of a coin shortage in some parts of the United States. As Americans have become reluctant to handle metal coins for fear of transmitting the coronavirus, coins have been filling up jars in homes around the country and not being recirculated.

Among the coins not making the rounds are the ubiquitous Lincoln penny. It has been estimated that there are as many as 22 billion Lincoln cents in existence today. It should come as no surprise that there would be such a large number of the coins, due in part to the small denomination of the penny. But there is also this: Lincoln pennies have been produced since 1909 when they became the first U.S. coin to depict an American President. The Lincoln penny is the oldest continuously-produced coin in the United States and is among the longest-running designs in the world.

Prior to the early 20th century, specific individuals were not depicted on American coins. Instead, more generic personifications were the main design – images such as “liberty” or the different depictions of eagles which graced the gold coins of the day. In part this reluctance to put an individual on a coin went all the way back to the founding when President George Washington objected to his appearing on a coin because it seemed too similar to the British tradition of placing the image of the monarch on currency. Washington saw the appearance of the coinage as another opportunity to establish a break between the customs of the old world and the new.

But after more than a century, the desire to highlight differences between the US and the UK was not as great, and with the coming of the 20th century the administration of Theodore Roosevelt found a new use for the currency.

Roosevelt sought to have America make a dramatic leap onto the world stage. Whether this involved sending a powerful fleet of battleships to circumnavigate the globe, or claiming a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of a war between Russia and Japan, Roosevelt wanted America to take its place among the great powers of the world.

As part of this effort, American currency underwent a series of design changes during the Roosevelt administration. The president felt the existing coins were drab and unartistic. A decade earlier the U.S. Mint had been authorized by Congress to change the appearance of any coin which had been in circulation for more than 25 years. This time horizon passed for many American coins during the Roosevelt presidency. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to come up with new designs for the coins, starting with larger-denomination gold coins such as the $20 piece, better known as the “double eagle.”

Saint Gaudens died of cancer in 1907 before he could finish the project, and so the redesign of the penny would fall to another sculptor. Roosevelt had long been an admirer of Victor David Brenner’s work, which had included a sculpture of Lincoln for a 1907 plaque. The President had hired Brenner for a medal commemorating the Panama Canal, but now their conversation turned toward the new penny.

In spite of the nation’s aversion to depicting specific people on coinage, the concept of a Lincoln penny seemed sensible to Roosevelt. Unlike the British coins which featured the reigning sovereign, this coin would instead include a historical figure. It would also be unveiled in the centennial year of Lincoln’s birth, a time when Lincoln souvenirs were coming back into vogue. Some citizens had even written to the Treasury Department requesting some kind of Lincoln coin. The idea of featuring Roosevelt’s personal hero and the nation’s greatest President on its coinage struck Roosevelt as truly inspired.

Roosevelt and Frank A. Leach, the director of the U.S. Mint made the decision to break from tradition and use the new coin design to honor the Great Emancipator. The new Lincoln penny would replace a design which had first gone into circulation in 1859; well beyond the 25 year window which would have required congressional authorization.

The design Brenner chose for the front of the penny has remained virtually unchanged to this day: Lincoln in profile. But the origin of the image has been a subject of much discussion. Back in February 1864 the renowned photographer Mathew Brady had taken a series of photographs of Lincoln in the White House, including one shot in profile which appears almost identical to the image on the penny. Brenner would later contend that the picture he had in mind was Lincoln in a happier setting, perhaps reading to a child. As it happened, during the same photo session Brady had taken a picture of Lincoln reading to his son Tad, with his face in almost the same position as both the Brady profile portrait and the penny image.

Brenner proposed two different Lincoln coins, the penny and also a half-dollar piece. Ultimately the Mint decided to go with only the penny because the existing half dollar had not yet been in circulation for 25 years and would have required congressional authorization to change.

As the artistic design was reduced to the actual size of the coin, Leach informed Brenner that some details would have to be retouched by the engravers at the Mint. One of these involved Brenner’s placing of his full name on the back of the coin. Instead he would use only use his initials. Brenner and the mint’s engraver agreed to have an outside firm help in the casting of the die for the coin.

More adjustments were made, including a shift of the Lincoln image toward the center of the coin. This move required the image of Lincoln to be reduced in vertical size. It also left blank space at the top of the coin which was ultimately filled with the words “In God We Trust.”

In line for Lincoln cents, 1909. 
By this time Roosevelt’s term in office had ended and his successor, William Howard Taft, would have the final say on the penny’s design. In May 1909, Taft endorsed the new look. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, an Illinoisan who had previously been director of the Commercial National Bank of Chicago, agreed. The Lincoln penny was granted formal approval on July 14, and would be released to the public on August 2, 1909.

The coin proved enormously popular from the start. An initial run of more than 20 million Lincoln pennies was released by the Philadelphia Mint. Interest in the coin was bolstered by the arrival of the Lincoln Centennial as well as the Treasury’s decision not to make the design public before the coin was released.

Americans lined up at banks and Treasury offices to obtain the new coins. At a Treasury office in New York, customers were limited to purchases of no more than 100. The Philadelphia Mint had to be stricter, placing the limit at two. The coins were so popular in the early days that they were being sold second-hand for as much as twenty-five cents.

One element which was not popular was the artist’s initials on the reverse side of the coin. Within ten days MacVeigh had them removed. By then there were 28 million of the coins already in circulation. Once the initials were removed, another 74 million pennies were made in 1909. While many of the surviving “VDB” pennies are in coin collections, at least one has done a bit of traveling in recent years: it is mounted aboard NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover as a target for calibrating the craft’s imaging instruments.

The initials were quietly re-integrated to the design in 1918 and remain there today, barely visible at the base of Lincoln’s shoulder.

The Lincoln image on the front of the coin has remained the same since then, with only very slight alterations. Only the year of the coin and the marks denoting which mint produced it (Philadelphia, Denver or San Francisco) appear substantially different from one penny to the next. But the reverse side is a different story.

The reverse of the original Lincoln penny featured the words ONE CENT surrounded by two wheat stalks. This design, which was in production from 1909 until 1958 came to be known informally as the “wheat penny.”

As Lincoln’s sesquicentennial birthday approached in 1959, the reverse of the coin was redesigned to feature an image of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, which had been completed 13 years after the release of the original Lincoln penny. This new design was released on February 12, 1959, Lincoln’s 150th birthday.

This design remained in place until 2009, when it was again overhauled for the Lincoln Bicentennial. The new penny would feature one of four designs depicting scenes from Lincoln’s life. The first was his Kentucky log cabin birthplace (which had also been proposed for the 1959 redesign), while the second showed the young Lincoln reading atop a log in Indiana.

Almost exactly one century after the first Lincoln penny was introduced, a ceremony was held in August 2009 on the packed lawn of the Old State Capitol in Springfield to unveil the Illinois design: orator Lincoln speaking in front of the Old State Capitol. A fourth penny displayed the U.S. Capitol with its nearly-completed dome as the scene of Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861.

The Lincoln penny has undergone other changes during its lifetime. Initially made of copper, the penny was changed to bronze, tin and steel during World War II because of wartime material shortages. Due to rising copper prices in the 1970s a partially-aluminum penny was tried out, before the Treasury Department went with a copper-covered zinc design in 1981.

With the completion of the bicentennial, the Lincoln penny was redesigned once more to include the federal shield on the reverse, an appearance it holds to this day. The shield was chosen because the act of Congress authorizing the new coin required that it include an image, “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.”

The latest design, which if history is any guide will last for 50 years, was first made available during a ceremony at Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum the day before Lincoln’s 201st birthday. Just as they had back in 1909, a crowd of collectors lined up out onto the street to be among the first to acquire the new coins.

“It’s important for us to be back in Springfield,” said U.S. Mint director Ed Moy during the ceremony, “because this was the city that was so important to the development of his political life.”