A Brief History of the Lincoln Cent

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by johnmilton, Sep 26, 2020.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    One of the YNs at my local club asked me to write this and given a presentation on the Lincoln cent. Here it is. I have not been an active Lincoln Cent collector for many years. Therefore the coin you see here are from my boyhood and teenager collection and not among "the finest known examples."

    I don't know about most of today's collectors, but my introduction to coin collecting began with the 13th Edition of The Red Book, and the two Whitman Lincoln cent folders that covered the series from 1909 to 1959. As a ten-year-old I began looking at every Lincoln cent in sight, but after a while, my interests turned to Indian cents and type coins. I finally decided to finish my 1909 to 1940 collection around 1982 when I bought the last coin I needed, a 1909-S-VDB with ANACS paper certification. Since then I have acquired a few Lincoln Cents and related items although the series has never been my top priority since those early collector days. Now that the Lincoln cent has been issued for 111 years, I thought it might be interesting to look at the highlights of this most enduring of all U.S. coins.

    The Lincoln cent had its beginnings as a project for President Theodore Roosevelt. The same president who spearheaded the effort that gave us the St. Gaudens $20 gold coin also initiated the Lincoln cent. As a progressive Republican, Roosevelt viewed himself as the heir apparent to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

    Brenner's Panama Canal Medal

    TR Pan Canal O Whole.jpt.jpg TR Pan Canal R Whole.jpg

    Brenner's Abraham Lincoln Medal

    Lincoln VDB Med O.jpg Lincoln VDB Med R.jpg

    In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt was posing for artist Victor D. Brenner (** See Brenner’s biography in the footnote) for a medal that would be awarded to the workers who built the Panama Canal. Building the canal was hard and dangerous work. In addition to the usual hazards that are connected with a major construction project, there was the constant threat of diseases like malaria and yellow fever. Previous attempts to build the canal had failed because of these obstacles. Roosevelt thought that it would be appropriate to present a presidential award to all of those who had worked on the project for a year or more.

    During their conversations Brenner mentioned that he was working on a couple of Lincoln projects, a plaque and a medal. He showed Roosevelt an example of the medal, and Roosevelt was hooked. The project came to fruition in August 1909 when the first Lincoln Cents were issued. The coins were immediately popular as newspaper boys made a brief side business of selling the new coins to those who were anxious to see the new cent.

    1909-S-VDB O.jpg 1909-S-VDB R.jpg

    1909-VDB The first Lincoln cents had Victor David Brenner's initials, V.D.B., prominently displayed at the bottom of the reverse of the coin. After some people objected to this, mint personnel removed the initials thus creating the 1909-VDB and 1909 Plain cents.

    One of the by-products of this change was the most famous Lincoln cent, the 1909-S-VDB. The San Francisco Mint, which was in its second year of producing cents, was making a limited number of the coins. When the change came, it was quickly noted that the mintage was "only" 484,000 pieces. The coin soon was a "key date" in the Lincoln series. It became the object of desire for those who have spent countless hours going though pocket change and bank rolls of cents. The 1909-S-VDB cent is hardly rare, but it sells for prices ranging from hundreds of dollars in the lowest, no problem grades to a few thousand dollars for high grade pieces with full mint red.

    The biggest 1909 cent prize for advanced collectors is the 1909-VDB cent in Matte Proof. With an estimated issue of 400 to 600 coins it is the rarest of all the Matte Proof Lincoln cents which were produced from 1909 to 1916. It was disclosed a few years ago that one person has hoarded at least 52 examples of the coin. Today the demand for the coin is intense although no one knows what affect that hoard might have on the market price.

    In 1918 the mint reinstated Victor D. Brenner's initials below Lincoln's shoulder on the obverse. They have remained there to the present day. The letters are so small and hard to see, that most people need a strong glass to spot them.

    1911-D This date gets very little press, but it does mark a minor historical milestone. It was the first year that the Denver Mint issued cents.

    1914-D Cent O.jpg.jpg 1914-D Cent R.jpg

    1914-D This is the second most famous date and mint mark combination in the Lincoln cent series. With a mintage of 1,193,000 it is not as highly regarded as the 1909-S-VDB in the circulated grades, but scarcer and more valuable in Mint State. Since this coin was issued after the introductory period for the Lincoln Cent, collectors and dealers did not save as many pieces in Mint State. By the time collectors realized that the 1914-D was a good coin, many of them were in the circulated grades.

    One of the tricks that dishonest people have tried to pull on collectors is to alter the very common 1944-D cents into the 1914-D by scraping off part of the first “4” in the date. The digits in the date of the genuine 1914 coin are slightly smaller, and the “1” is too far to the right on the bogus, altered coin. Unfortunately the deception has fooled some collectors through the years.

    An altered 1944-D cent, now a "1914-D cent"

    1944-D to 14-D One O.jpg 1944-D to 14-D One R.jpg

    To be continued - next message
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  3. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    Photos courtesy of Heritage Auctions

    1922 Plain Her 63 O.jpg 1922 Plain Her 63 R.jpg

    1922 Plain In 1922 cents were only produced at the Denver Mint. Apparently, the demand for new cents was low that year, and the Philadelphia Mint did not issue any cents for the first time since 1815.

    In those years the Philadelphia Mint produced all of the dies for the U.S. Mint System. In the early 1920s, the Philadelphia mint personnel were overwhelmed with orders to produce dies for the new Peace Dollar. As a result, Denver and San Francisco Mints pushed their cent and Buffalo Nickel dies beyond their normal limits. That resulted in coins with fuzzy images and, in the case of the 1922 Plain cent, no mint mark. There are three varieties of the 1922 Plain cent. By far the most desirable of these is the die pair which has the "strong reverse." The obverse of all 1922 Plain cents is weak to varying degrees because the variety was created by excessive die wear and polishing.

    The 1922 Plain cent started to become a part of the "standard" Lincoln cent set in the early 1940s. Judging by the articles that were published in The Numismatist, not all collectors thought that it was a worthwhile addition. One collector even suggested that one could save the money and simply scrape off the "D" if they really wanted a 1922 "Plain" cent! Unfortunately, counterfeiters have picked up on this suggestion. Collectors should exercise care whenever they consider the purchase of a 1922 Plain cent. Adding to the confusion are some coins that have “a weak” or “broken D.” Certification is highly recommended.

    The Great Depression

    1931-S O.jpg 1931-S R.jpg

    1931-S The 1931-S cent was a product of The Great Depression when massive unemployment and hard times resulted low demand for new coins. With a mintage of 866,000, the coin is hardly rare, and enough were saved to make any undamaged piece below the Fine-VF grade "scarce." Still it is a "semi key" date. Interestingly the Philadelphia Mint, which customarily exchanged old coins for new coins across the counter, still had Mint State 1931-S cents available for exchange up until the late 1930s.

    Other cent mintages were low during the worst of The Great Depression. In 1930, the U.S. Mint System issued almost 221.8 million cents. In 1931, the mintage dropped to 24.8 million. In 1932 it fell 19.6 million and was 20.6 million in 1933. In 1934, there was a dramatic increase to 247.5 million.

    WW II Cents O.jpg WW II Cents R.jpg

    1943 Steel Cents At beginning of World War II copper became a strategic war material. To save copper for the war effort, the composition of the cent was changed from bronze to steel with a zinc coating.

    The coins were immediately unpopular. Some people confused them with the dime. The coins also became unattractive in circulation. After only a year, the copper cent made a return although now the coins were made from metal recovered from spent gun shell casings. The color was a little different, but it can only be detected on high-grade Mint State cents with full red mint.

    For many years there were claims that the 1943 cents existed in bronze. Many collectors and dealers pooh-poohed the idea, but with advent of certification services, it has been proven that a small number were made and have survived from all three mints. Many bogus 1943 "copper cents” have been made by plating the steel cents. These counterfeits are easily detected because they are drawn to a magnet. The genuine bronze pieces are not magnetic. There was also a small number of 1944 cents that were made of steel with the zinc coating. These pieces have sold for tens of thousands of dollars, but they have brought lower prices than the more famous 1943 bronze cents.

    1955 DDo 1 O.jpg 1955 DDO 1 R.jpg

    1955 Doubled Die Obverse Cent When this coin was first surfaced in the mid 1950s, it had a market value of 35 cents. Its popularity increased rapidly. In 1959 it reached "the big time" when it won a listing in The Red Book at $35.00 in Uncirculated condition. Today prices range from over $1,000 in the VF, which is often the lowest "no problem" grade encountered to $35,000 in MS-65, Red.

    The 1955 Doubled Die Obverse Cent is the most famous of a very large number of doubled die coins in the U.S. series. There are hundreds of varieties of doubled die Lincoln cents, but many of them display doubling that is too minor to be of interest to most collectors. Historically getting a spot in The Red Book has been a prerequisite for these coins to become famous and valuable. Others include the 1970, 1983 doubled die reverse, 1984 doubled ear, 1995 and the most expensive of all, the 1969-S.

    Photos courtesy of Heritage Auctions

    1969-S Cent 64 R Her O.jpg 1969-S Cent 64 R Her R.jpg

    The Lincoln Memorial Reverse Introduced in 1959 Nineteen fifty-nine marked the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent and the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. Frank Gasparro designed a new reverse which featured a frontal view of the Lincoln Memorial complete with a tiny statue of a seated Lincoln between the two center columns.

    The depiction of a building on a coin is always a challenge. On a tiny thin coin like a cent developing a credible design would have been a miracle. Gasparro's work was better than what might have been expected, but some people have derisively said that “It looks like a trolley car.”

    On a personal note, the announcement of the new coin in "The Weekly Reader," an elementary school newspaper, prompted me to hoard every new cent that passed into my hands in the spring of 1959. This was the first indication that I might become a coin collector.

    1969-S Doubled Die Obverse Cent This coin began its existence under a cloud of suspicion because an earlier reported 1969-P doubled die cent turned out to be a counterfeit. That piece was produced by a counterfeiting ring that made their creations from spark erosion dies. The Secret Service shut down their operation, and the perpetrators went to jail. When the San Francisco Mint coin surfaced, it was greeted with skepticism but then proved to be genuine.

    With an estimated population of around 15 to 25 coins, the 1969-S doubled die cent is a rare collectable. Most of the known examples are brown Uncirculated or AU pieces, and they are often unattractive. The record price is $126,500 which was paid at auction for a PCGS graded coin in MS-64, Red. Prices close to $10,000 for average pieces are not unusual. I once handled one when I was a dealer that was priced in the $8,000 neighborhood.

    To be continued ...
  4. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    1982 Cent Var O.jpg 1982 Cent Var R.jpg

    The 1982 Seven Piece Set By 1982 the price of copper had reached the point where it cost the mint system more than one cent to produce a cent. To relieve that problem the mint switched from the sold bronze cent, which had been issued since 1864, to a zinc coin with a thin layer of copper, mid way through 1982.

    The new coins were virtually identical so far as the average citizen was concerned, but coin collectors and dealers jumped on the subtle difference. To add to the fun, it was discovered that there were large and small date varieties issued from the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. Cardboard cards housed in plastic sleeves with openings for the seven varieties of 1982 cents copped up at coin shows at modest prices. Today those sets have faded into the past, but the fact remains that the copper or bronze cent, which had been a staple in the American monetary series since 1793, began to disappear from circulation.

    Lincoln Log Cabin.jpg Lincoln Early Life.jpg Lincoln Springfield.jpg Lincoln Capital.jpg

    The 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial Four Piece Cent Set In 2009 the U.S. Mint System issued a set of four reverses for the Lincoln cent which celebrated four phases of the Great Emancipator's life. They were birth and early childhood (a log cabin), the formative years (Lincoln studying book, sitting on a log), professional life (Lincoln standing in front of the old Illinois State Capitol in Springfield) and the presidency (the U.S. capitol with its dome under construction). The coins were to be issued sequentially throughout 2009, but an economic recession got in the way. The decreased economic activity reduced the need for new coins, and distribution of the cents was disappointingly slow. Fewer citizens than expected took note of the series.

    In an effort to make the coins special for collectors, the Proof pieces were struck on bronze planchets instead of the customary copper coated zinc. These four special coins were included in the 2009 Proof sets, both clad and silver, and the Lincoln Coin & Chronicles Set, which included the four Proof cents plus the Lincoln commemorative silver dollar.

    2011-S Cent O.jpg 2011-S Cent R.jpg

    The Shield Reverse Lincoln Cent, 2010 to date In 2010, the mint introduced the Shield Reverse to the Lincoln cent. The design was reminiscent of the tiny shield that had appeared on the reverse of the Indian cent starting in 1860. This device has continued to appear on the reverse of the Lincoln Cent to the present day.

    Today the cent is an obsolete coin despite the fact that the mint system produces billions of them every year. The coin has no purchasing power and costs more to produce than its face value. About the only use the cent has is to make change for the state sales taxes on purchases. Despite calls to discontinue the cent, the Federal Government has been reluctant to drop it. Recently Canada dropped its cent from production.

    One can only wonder how much longer the government will issue this venerable representative of our nation's monetary system. My guess is, that the cent will not be made for circulation, but will continue to be issued in Proof and Mint sets, like the Kennedy half dollar. Too many collectors have continued to collect these coins through the years to see it disappear from the American scene completely.

    ** Victor D. Brenner was born to Jewish parents in Siauliai, Lithuania on June 12, 1871. His birth name was Avigdor David Brenner. He changed his first name to “Victor” after he immigrated to America.

    Brenner came to America with only a set of engraving tools and the skills his father had taught him. He lived frugally in the New York City area taking work where he could find it.

    In 1894 he became a full-time employee at the Robert Stoll Company in New York City. He earned enough money to bring more of his family members to America. During this period, he took night school classes at the Cooper Union, a private college located in the East Village area of Manhattan. He taught himself English and French.

    In 1898 he moved to Paris where is studied under the great medalist, Oscar Roty, at the Académie Julian. He won awards for his work at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Showing great promise, he returned to America where he had no trouble finding customers who paid well for his skill. In 1907, the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt posed personally for one of his medals. Brenner continued his successful career until his death in 1924.
  5. UncleScroge

    UncleScroge Active Member

    Wow, what I didn't know. Very interesting and informative. Thank you!
    capthank and johnmilton like this.
  6. wxcoin

    wxcoin Getting no respect for 64 years

    As with other series, you presented a nice summary of the Lincoln Cent. Thanks for sharing! Like you, my coin collecting began with the Lincoln cent in the mid 60's. Although I still have interest in obtaining high grade early examples, my focus is on other early series.
    capthank, johnmilton and Penny Luster like this.
  7. Mr.Q

    Mr.Q Well-Known Member

    I have basically the same outline it contains just about anything you could possibly ask about Lincoln. A very nice presentation. Thank you
    capthank and Penny Luster like this.
  8. Nyatii

    Nyatii I like running w/scissors. Makes me feel dangerous

    Thank you. Makes me want to run out and buy some boxes of cents to look thru.
    capthank and johnmilton like this.
  9. bikergeek

    bikergeek Member

    This was a wonderful post and I appreciated reading it today while I sipped my coffee. Top notch work, @johnmilton! I learned some things, looked at some cool photos, and nobody argued about doubled dies! :)
  10. Penny Luster

    Penny Luster Supporter! Supporter

    Thank you!
    I will never forget examining my change from lunch money in grade school, along with the other kids seeking wheat pennies for our Whitman albums in the sixties.
    Good times.
    capthank and johnmilton like this.
  11. Mountain Man

    Mountain Man Well-Known Member

    As always, a very nice write up and educational. Thank you John.
    capthank likes this.
  12. whopper64

    whopper64 Active Member

    Thanks for the informative article, and especially your comments at the end regarding the U.S. Mint hopefully continuing to mint Lincoln cents, both in biz and proof versions for collectors, same as the Kennedy half. It probably wouldn't hurt to extend that process to nickels and dimes as well, with the quarter as the lowest denomination circulated coin. I still think the Canadians blew it by not continuing to mint their cent in collector versions only. Guess that Canadians have far less collectors for their "penny" than we have for our Lincolns (even the dreaded "zincolns"). As a side note, it would then behoove the U.S. Mint to change the cent composition back to pre 1982 standards.
    johnmilton, capthank and Penny Luster like this.
  13. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    Yes, if the mint is only going to make collector versions of the coin, switching back to bronze makes a lot of sense.
    Penny Luster likes this.
  14. capthank

    capthank Well-Known Member

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  15. Scalight

    Scalight Active Member

    Very enjoyable read. Brought back some good memories. Thank you !
    johnmilton likes this.
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