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Lincoln Cents Inspire Generations
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
January 17, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Most coin collectors probably began with the Lincoln cent. Generations of collectors did so following the introduction of popular coin boards in the 1930s and the Whitman tri-fold album in 1940.

However, as the years have passed, Morgan dollars and even gold coins have become popular entry points for newcomers.

Whether the Lincoln cent retains its position as the most widely collected U.S. coin is less important today than the simple fact that all collectors should be aware of the history of the series even if they themselves did not try to find one of those 484,000 1909-S VDB coins to plug into the empty hole in their Lincoln cent album.

The story of how the Lincoln cent arrived is an interesting one. It traces back to President Theodore Roosevelt who was determined to change the nation’s coin designs.

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At the time, what he had in mind was to make them more like the coins of ancient Greece and Rome and that was seen to a degree in the efforts he made with Augustus Saint-Gaudens to change the gold double eagle and eagle.

In fact, there had been talk of a change for the cent as well, but Saint-Gaudens would never live long enough to have any more impact than what he had on the gold double eagle and eagle. He died in 1907.

In the meantime, Victor D. Brenner had created a Lincoln head design that Roosevelt apparently liked. Brenner suggested to Roosevelt that the centennial of Lincoln’s birth was just around the corner and that a circulating Lincoln coin might be a good idea. Roosevelt agreed, although in doing so he was breaking with well over a century of tradition during which no American appeared on a circulating coin.

The tradition of not using Americans on coins had dated back to 1792 when the lawmakers of the time had faced the problem of what denominations to authorize as well as what to put on them. The United States Senate had originally suggested that George Washington as the President be placed on all issues, but that ran into problems in the House of Representatives, which was supposed to more closely reflect the will of the people than the Senate, which was reflective of the state legislatures that elected them at the time.

Members of the House of Representatives thought the idea of Washington’s portrait on coins was far too similar to the approach in England of putting the king on coins. That was a time when anything remotely resembling something England was doing would have been seen as a very politically incorrect idea. The Revolutionary War was fresh in the minds of virtually all of the adults living in 1792.

The Senate and House of Representatives had a lively debate over the matter of using portraits on coins, but ultimately it was Washington himself who settled the matter by siding with the House of Representatives. Liberty instead of Washington was portrayed on American coins.

In fact, the debate while interesting had not really gotten into the matter of could Americans be used on coins if they did not hold political office or if they were dead. Such matters simply did not come up, but the tradition became simply that no Americans were used on the coins. There was little reason to test that idea for decades, although during the Civil War there were patterns made with Washington on them.

Moreover, there were bank notes both of the United States but also of assorted banks and utilities as well as the Confederate States of America that used former and living Americans.

Coins, however, were seen as different and no Americans appeared on a coin of any type until George Washington joined Lafayette on the 1900-dated commemorative silver dollar, but that was a commemorative and they were seen as different as in theory they did not circulate.

Whether Roosevelt was aware of this tradition is unknown. He should have known, because he was a brilliant and well educated man. He was also a maverick. He did not think “In God We Trust” belonged on coins. When the motto was dropped on the gold $10 and $20 coins in 1907 at his insistence, there was a public outcry. Congress overrode his wishes and the motto was put back in 1908.

His politically burned fingers notwithstanding, he certainly acted as if the tradition of no real people on circulating coins could be set aside. He was interested in a Lincoln cent and the Lincoln Centennial Association, which was set up to lead the national celebration of Lincoln’s 100th birthday, was certainly in agreement with Roosevelt.

It took some time to work out a design as Victor D. Brenner had an excellent Lincoln design ready but was having other troubles. The reverse was uncertain and at one point it was discovered that he was proposing a reverse that was really a copy of a coin of France and as one official complained that Brenner insisted on using Latinized letter “Us” which looked like “Vs.”

There was another problem, which was that Brenner was including his full name as part of the design. Finally the Secretary of the Treasury basically stepped in, limiting Brenner to his initials.

Once all of those problems were worked out, the Lincoln cent could go into production, replacing the Indian Head cent, which was something of a mystery coin itself as back in 1859 the Indian Head cent had suddenly appeared replacing the Flying Eagle cent, which had only been in routine use for two years. There were possibly a couple of reasons for the change, such as officials did not really like the design or that they were concerned that cents were piling up in circulation not being used by some, but whatever the reasons they suggested were not very convincing. Some 50 years later, however, the Indian Head cent, which by then was an institution, was ready to be replaced.

The new Lincoln cent was certain to make waves for a variety of reasons, but by the time of its release, Roosevelt had left office.

The fact that it was the cent was significant as the nation’s collectors were primarily interested in lower denominations at the time. The cent was the most widely used and heavily collected denomination and that meant a change in it as opposed to something like a double eagle would been seen quickly by everyone.

The use of Lincoln had to also be a factor. It was no small thing that famous Americans had not been used on coins in the past. Americans were simply not used to seeing historical figures on the coins but this was Lincoln.

We all assume Lincoln deserves to be on a coin today, but this was 1909 and there were still many especially in the South who had been on the other side in the Civil War. The use of Lincoln might not have been all that popular in some areas. One way or another the fact is the Lincoln cent was an immediate topic of conversation and debate.

The American Numismatic Association’s The Numismatist reported at the time on the interest by the public in the new coin.

“Anticipated for months and anxiously awaited, the one-cent coin bearing the head of Abraham Lincoln was issued from the Mint commencing Aug. 2. Surrounded with much that makes it novel, the advance demand at the Mint for this piece was far greater than that accompanying any previous coin issue.”

Not all notices were positive as the New York Times was not thrilled with the whole idea, calling the Lincoln cent, “another ill-considered freak of Mr. Roosevelt’s will.”

Someone else was not happy with the new design and that was the secretary of the Treasury, who ironically had approved it before production started. The secretary of the Treasury soon after issue discovered the small “VDB” on the reverse and immediately called for a meeting to do something about those prominent initials. Options were discussed, but time was a critical factor and the quickest way to do something was to simply eliminate them. That, at least, was the opinion offered by Chief Engraver Charles Barber who frankly was going to do nothing to help Brenner as he had never liked the idea of Brenner designing the coin in the first place.

Unfortunately, Brenner had given everyone reason to believe that he wanted more recognition than was normally given any artist on a U.S. coin. He had tried to get his full name on the coin and thank had rankled. So he really had no friends in the Treasury secretary’s meeting that made the decision to eliminate the VDB initials.

Brenner naturally defended the initials, suggesting, “The name of an artist on the coin is essential for the student of history as it enables him to trace environments and conditions of the time said coin was produced.”

Brenner was certainly right on one point when he suggested, “The very talk of the initial has done more good for numismatics than it could do for me personally.”

With the VDB eliminated for the rest of the 1909 mintages, the Lincoln cent was an even bigger sensation especially the 1909-S VDB, which had a mintage of just 484,000. That total caused the 1909-S VDB to be the coin everyone wanted and it remained that way for decades.

Even more important than the price of the 1909-S VDB was the fact that it helped to inspire generations to start collecting coins. There is no doubt about the impact as coin collecting had been going through some difficult times in the 1890s and early 1900s, but the interest in the new Lincoln cent and especially the 1909-S VDB helped to turn things around in terms of collecting interest. Nor was it only the 1909-S VDB that caught collector attention as the 1909 VDB from Philadelphia was saved in extremely large numbers as is seen by its prices today, which are very reasonable when you consider its age and its mintage of nearly 28 million pieces.

The years that passed saw the Lincoln cent continue to be avidly collected as a number of better dates released into circulation saw the Lincoln cent remain a popular set to attempt to complete from circulation. It was also a natural as people tend to start with low denominations. The Lincoln cent was a perfect collection for a youngster to use as their first coin collection as it was not only affordable but with enough looking almost every youngster would have the thrill of finding a better coin.

At the time the Lincoln cent was introduced the only anniversary that mattered to officials took place after the design had been in use 25 years as at the time the secretary of the Treasury was allowed to replace designs at will after 25 years based on authority granted by a law passed in the 1890s.

By the time the first coin boards and albums came into popular use, a generation had passed and the Mint had created a number of scarce issues in the form of the 1914-D and 1922 plain cents as well as a number of “S” mint dates that seemed to be devilishly hard to find in circulation. With two full generations of collectors focusing on the Lincoln cent, it was quite natural that another milestone occurred in this series.

The first time anyone really thought about doing something special to mark the anniversary of a coin design came in 1959 when the reverse of the Lincoln cent was changed to mark its 50th anniversary. The Mint director at the time explained the new Lincoln Memorial reverse saying, “The reverse side is that of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in honor of the Lincoln Sesquicentennial observance. The change is a permanent one to remain in effect for not less than 25 years as provided by law.”

As it turned out, the new design did not receive rave reviews with some calling it the “trolley car cent” while the National Sculpture Society observed that, “an act of desecration has been committed by our government.”

In fact the Lincoln Memorial probably does not work on a coin as small as a cent, but whether it was great art or not, the new Lincoln cent inspired many people to collect coins as had the first Lincoln cents in 1909. It is easily monitored as the sales of mint and proof sets, which are usually a good indicator of interest, increased substantially over the 1958 totals.

There was no set policy when it came to anniversaries and perhaps the reaction to the Lincoln Memorial reverse discouraged even the thought of changes as the Washington quarter and Jefferson nickel would both reach their 50th anniversaries in 1982 and 1988, respectively, without any special activity.

The atmosphere when the Roosevelt dime reached the 50-year mark was different as officials were actively courting coin collectors in the hopes they would buy new issues. That saw a special 1996-W Roosevelt dime offered to mark the anniversary of the design. The attraction was that the 1996-W would be the first Roosevelt dime ever produced at West Point. It’s sales of just under 1.5 million in the uncirculated coin set probably would have been better were there not so many commemoratives and bullion coins being offered for sale that year, but it was a start. It signaled that times were changing.

Shortly afterwards, the state quarter program began in 1999 and the Sacagawea dollar was introduced in 2000. Various designs were used on the Jefferson nickel 2004-2006.

Designs changes became routine, and they once again led right back to the cent.

But significantly, these recent changes from 1999 on were mandated by Congress and not by action of a Treasury secretary acting to reflect the wishes of the President.

The importance of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth was certainly not lost on lawmakers, who approved in 2005 as part of Public Law 109-145 something of a comprehensive bill for assorted new coin issues. New Lincoln cents in 2009 were called for in Title III of the Presidential Dollar Coin Act.

Four different reverses depicting various stages in the life of Abraham Lincoln starting with his birth and early childhood in Kentucky followed by his formative years in Indiana, his professional life in Illinois and his presidency in Washington, D.C. provide four reverses in three states and the District of Columbia.

In addition, also called for were special 2009 coins made to the identical specifications as the first Lincoln cents in 1909.

Making things even more interesting, the bill called for a reverse starting in 2010. The law reads, “The design of the reverse of the 1-cent coins issued after Dec. 31, 2009 shall bear an image emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.”

It is perhaps appropriate that Presidential attention and congressional interest have combined to provide a Lincoln cent series that has been a leader when it comes to special activities for nationally important anniversaries and creating widespread collector interest.

For a coin of such low face value, that is no small feat.

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