An American Coinage First - 1909 - Lincoln Cent
When the notion of a Lincoln coin arose to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, it encountered real resistance from traditionalists. Having a regular-issue U.S. coin honoring an actual person was a first for the United States Mint. This had never been done and it was thought to be defying a tradition that dated back to George Washington’s presidency. For more than a century, federal officials had followed George Washington’s lead and avoided the depiction of presidents, past or present or any other recognizable individuals on the nation’s circulating coinage.
The redevelopment of the cent actually began in 1904 when President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury complaining that U.S. coinage lacked artistic merit and enquiring if it would be possible to engage a private artist to prepare new coin designs. In 1905, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was hired by the Mint to redesign the cent and four gold coins which did not require congressional approval. Two of Saint-Gaudens’ proposed designs for the cent were eventually adapted for gold pieces, but Saint-Gaudens died in August 1907 before submitting additional designs for the cent.
Victor D. Brenner, a turn of the 20th century sculptor had been contracted to create the portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt for the Panama Canal service medal. During the long sittings, the two men talked about all kinds of subjects and eventually became close friends. Roosevelt told Brenner about his desire to see a renaissance of artistic designs for United States coinage and his unhappiness with the current Chief Mint engraver’s lack of artistic spark. Roosevelt invited Brenner to submit designs for consideration for the new cent that was to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
In January 1909, the Mint engaged Brenner, who was said to be obsessed with Lincoln, to design a cent depicting the late president. Brenner had already modeled a plaque and medal for Lincoln’s birth centennial and was said to have suggested the Lincoln coin to Roosevelt. The Mint Director was impressed with the Lincoln portrait that had graced Brenner’s 1907 medal for the coin’s front but rejected Brenner’s first reverse design of the coin. The second design, featuring two ears of durum wheat was however accepted. Brenner’s final design underwent very little variations before eventually being fully approved. The new Lincoln cent coins were issued to great public interest on August 2, 1909.
There were some other interesting firsts for this unique coin. Brenner’s original design featured a portrait of Lincoln facing right, (The only presidential portrait on a coin to do so) and for the first time on the cent, the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was placed over Lincoln’s head. Flanking Lincoln’s bust on the left was the inscription LIBERTY, with the date on the right. The reverse design showed two sheaves of wheat, one on either side, framing the inscriptions ONE CENT, E PLURIBUS UNUM and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The highest points on the obverse are Lincoln’s cheekbone and jaw, on the reverse the tips of the wheat stalks. For collector’s today, these are typically the places to first show wear.
When the coin was released in August 1909, the public lined up to get this new presidential coin but a new dispute developed when the first examples of the coin were found to bear the artist’s initials V.D.B. in large letters at the base of the reverse side. The initials were thought to be too prominent and Brenner’s initials were removed within days of the coin’s release. Ironically, the public outcry that led to the initials quick removal resulted in the creation of a major numismatic rarity. In 1909, only 484,000 of these new Lincoln cents were minted in San Francisco with the initials, and the 1909-S V.D.B. cent has been the most coveted coin in the series ever since. On a side note, Brenner was vilified by the media as being arrogant and vain for the size of his initials despite the fact that it was actually the U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber who determined the size and placement of his initials. In 1918, Brenner’s initials were restored in much smaller letters on the shoulder of Lincoln’s bust where they are still found today.
As a collector, It is worth noting that there were actually six distinct types of U.S. Cents issued in 1909:
- Indian Head Cent – 1909 (Mintage: 14.4 mil.)
- Indian Head Cent – 1909-S (Mintage: 309k)
- Lincoln Wheat Cent – 1909 VDB (Mintage: 28 mil.)
- Lincoln Wheat Cent – 1909-S VDB (Mintage: 484k)
- Lincoln Wheat Cent – 1909 (Mintage: 73 mil.)
- Lincoln Wheat Cent – 1909-S (Mintage: 1.8 mil.)
Although there are some minor die varieties among the various year 1909 Lincoln pennies, the V.D.B. is by far the most well known.