America's "Longevity Champion" Lincoln Cent
by John Devitt
The Lincoln cent might never have come about, at least as we know it, had it not been for the untimely death of Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the age of 55. Regarded as America's greatest-ever sculptor, Saint-Gaudens had been central to President Theodore Roosevelt's vision of transforming the nation's coinage. In 1907, Saint-Gaudens' magnificent $10 "Indian Head" gold coin and unsurpassed $20 "Standing Liberty" gold piece were released to an awe-struck American public. Many consider the $20 "Saint" as the most beautiful coin in our history.
Emboldened by these coins' great prestige, Roosevelt wanted Saint-Gaudens to create other coins as well. The "Indian Head" cent introduced in 1859 was approaching its 50th anniversary, so 1909 seemed like the right time for a change. It's likely that Saint-Gaudens would have continued the tradition of a Liberty personification on a new cent's obverse, but plans died with Saint-Gaudens in August of 1908. Attention turned to a possible coin tribute to Abraham Lincoln for the centennial of his birth in 1909. Roosevelt greatly admired a recent bronze medal of Lincoln created by the Lithuanian-born sculptor Victor D. Brenner, based on a Civil War photograph. At Roosevelt's bidding, Brenner adapted his Lincoln medal to the smaller frame of the cent and modified relief to protect dies through large mintages. It was first coin Brenner had prepared and proved to be his last.
A Controversial Beginning for America's Longest Coin Series
The careful perfecting of the Lincoln cent made for delays and it wasn't released until August of 1909, far later than the February 12 centennial. Meanwhile, the Treasury Secretary had expressed displeasure at the size of Brenner's "VDB" initials on the "Wheat Ears" reverse. Although the new penny was greeted with great public acclaim, some editorials agreed with the Treasury Secretary's assessment that the “VDB" initials were presumptuously large. Accordingly, the first "VDB" type was recalled by the Treasury within days of release, to be replaced by a no-initials second type. In 1918, after Brenner's death, a "B" was added on Lincoln's shoulder in homage to the engraver.
The Lincoln cent was a radical change in circulating U.S. coinage, because it was the first such regular coin to portray an actual historical figure (the 1892-1893 "Columbus" half dollar had been a limited-mintage commemorative coin). It would prove to be the forerunner of later U.S. presidential coins: the Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter, Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar. Brenner's Lincoln cent portrait continued for 100 consecutive years of minting (a record longevity for a U.S. coin), until different obverse Lincoln designs were struck in 2009 for the bicentennial of his birth. The original "Wheat Ears" (or "Wheatie") reverse continued for 50 years, replaced by the "Lincoln Memorial" reverse in 1959, which also remained in place for a half century.
Today the future of the Lincoln cent is in much doubt, as cents have become almost irrelevant in today's commerce and it costs more to produce one than its face value. Yet the enormous popularity of the coin remains, together with the nation's veneration of Lincoln. No American coin has been more enthusiastically collected and that tradition will surely continue unabated.