The Lincoln Cent is the longest-running coin design in American numismatic history. Its story begins with another US President, Theodore Roosevelt, who was instrumental in its creation.
Roosevelt pushed for the redesign of all US gold coinage, as well as the cent, during his time in office. The Mint actually contracted sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the cent, but he had only completed designs for gold coins before his death in 1907. There was a greatly renewed public interest in Abraham Lincoln as 1909, the centennial of his birth, approached. Teddy Roosevelt was a great admirer of Lincoln and sought to honor him on the cent.
Roosevelt was introduced to sculptor Victor David Brenner when he sat for a medal design in 1908. The President admired a plaque of Lincoln that Brenner had produced the previous year, which was in turn likely based on a Matthew Brady photograph. Brenner was contracted to design the new cent and submitted designs just as Roosevelt was leaving office.
The Lincoln craze of 1909 was in full force at the time of the new cent’s release in August 1909. At this time, the US Mint did not permit images of coin designs to appear in newspapers, so the new design was the subject of much speculation. Long lines at facilities across the country led to rationing of the new pennies.
There was some controversy over the inclusion of Brenner’s initials (“VDB”) on the reverse of the coin. These initials were quickly removed, but not before millions of the original design had been struck (many in advance of the new design’s release). Of the three mints producing pennies – Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco – the latter released the smallest quantity of the “VDB” coins, just 484,000. The 1909-S VDB cent remains the rarest and one of the most elusive dates in the series.
The subsequent history of the Lincoln cent has been long and colorful, providing seemingly endless collecting opportunities for numismatists. For example, during World War II, copper and tin shortages led to the production of steel pennies in 1943. However, a few steel cents are dated 1944; likewise, a few copper cents were produced with 1943 dates. Both of these issues are valuable. One copper penny dated 1943-D sold in 2010 for $1.7 million. The composition of the Lincoln cent was changed again in 1982, this time, more permanently. A rise in metal prices drove the intrinsic value of pennies well above one cent, leading to hoarding; since 1983, pennies have been made of zinc with a copper coating.
The original “wheat cent” reverse design was replaced after a full fifty years, in 1959. Frank Gasparro’s new “Lincoln Memorial” design was released on February 12, 1959, Lincoln’s 150th birthday. After another half century, the reverse was changed again: for 2009, four different reverse designs were released, each depicting a different period in Lincoln’s life. In 2010, a new reverse design by Lyndall Bass was introduced. The “shield cent” remains in production today. The obverse of the Lincoln cent has remained largely unchanged since its introduction more than a century ago.