The Lincoln Cent is perhaps the most recognized and familiar of all circulating American coins. The obverse design, remarkably, has been in place without any major modifications for over a century. It is by far the longest-running coinage design in United States numismatics. The reverse has seen some changes over the years—as has the coin’s composition—but otherwise it has been a steady mainstay of our coinage system.
Unbeknownst to most numismatists, President Theodore Roosevelt originally planned to have Augustus St. Gaudens redesign the one cent coin. Unfortunately the famous sculptor passed away in 1907 before he could complete the design. With the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth approaching, Roosevelt felt that the new cent should honor the late president.
Prior to 1909, virtually all American coins displays the likeness of Liberty. This vague female figure was meant to be an emblematic figure of Liberty—but not a specific person. The Lincoln Cent paved the way for many other coins honoring our most famous presidents. By the 1970s, every circulating coin had been switched from ambiguous portraits to former leaders.
As the smallest of all circulating coins, the Lincoln Cent was produced in massive quantities right out of the gate. Tens of millions of coins were made in 1909, but one specific variety of 1909 is quite rare (and famous). The 1909-S VDB cent is the scarcest date in the series and the undisputed key date. When the Lincoln cent was first unveiled, the designer (Victor David Brenner) placed his initials at 6:00 on the reverse. The public felt his initials were in too prominent a place, so they were soon relocated. “Only” 484,000 of these VDB cents were made in San Francisco in 1909, thus making it quite scarce.
Although it’s technically an error, the rarest Lincoln cent is the 1943 Copper penny. To conserve copper, the United States Mint struck all pennies in zinc that year—except for a tiny group that were still made of the usual copper alloy. Less than 10 are known today and all (no pun intended) are worth a pretty penny. Some have traded hands for well in excess of $100,000.
The first major change to the Lincoln Cent took place in 1959, when the old Wheat Ear reverse was swapped for a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial. The reverse was modified again in 2009 and 2010; the most current version now displays a shield and the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM.” Although largely invisible, another change took place in 1982: the old copper alloy was tweaked to a copper-plated zinc composition. The coin’s appearance went unchanged but the Mint was able to use a less expensive alloy.