Lincoln Wheat Cents (1909 - 1958)

Wheat cents (1909–1958)

In 1909, a study of three potential reverses resulted in the approval of a very simple design bearing two wheatheads in memorial style. Between these, in the center of the coin, are the denomination and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, while curving around the upper border is the national motto, E Pluribus Unum, Latin for "From Many, One."

The Philadelphia Mint struck 20,000,000 of the new coin even before its design was made official by Secretary MacVeagh. Dies for the San Francisco Mint, prepared at Philadelphia, were ready for shipment to San Francisco on June 22.[24]

There was intense public interest in the new cents, especially since the Mint had not permitted images of the new coin to be printed in the newspapers. The Lincoln craze sparked by the centennial had not yet subsided, and there was widespread speculation about the coin's design.[25] The Mint decided to plan for a simultaneous release of the coin across the United States on August 2, and Treasury Department branches were sent what were thought to be adequate supplies.[26]

On the morning of August 2, 1909, long lines formed outside Treasury facilities across the United States. Some early applicants were able to obtain all the coins they wanted, but soon the pieces were rationed: applicants at the New York Sub-Treasury were allowed 100 pieces per person; those who sought the coins at the Philadelphia Mint were allowed only two each.[26] Coins passed on the secondary market outside the Philadelphia Mint for a quarter each until prices settled down to five cents per new penny. Many newsboys were among those who profited from the new coins; crowds gathered around the windows where the coins were for sale in Washington until order was restored.[27]

Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh (depicted on a Mint medalBrenner's initials, which he had placed at the base of the reverse, immediately became a source of controversy—on the afternoon of August 2, The Washington Star queried the Treasury as to the initials. Quotes appeared in the papers from (possibly invented) unnamed Treasury officials, opining that the coins were illegal because of the initials, which were seen as advertising.[28] On August 5, Secretary MacVeagh ordered coinage of the cent suspended until the coins could be struck with an inconspicuous "B" for Brenner on the coin.[29] However, removing the initials and striking new pieces with no initials would lead to a three-day delay in coinage; effacing the initials and inserting an initial "B" would cause a 14-day delay. Assistant Treasury Secretary Eliot Norton, after meeting with Barber, ordered that the coins be struck with no initial.[30] Treasury Department Solicitor Maurice O'Connell held that the exclusion of the initials did not constitute a design change which could only have been implemented by waiting 25 years or obtaining congressional approval.[31] Barber also opposed retaining a single initial "B", fearing that as he had used an identical initial on his Barber coinage, the new coin would be deemed to be his work, and, according to Norton, "He is not willing to be held personally responsible for the Lincoln penny which he has always opposed and does not regard as a successful coin."[29]

Brenner objected to the removal of his initials, but his protests were to no avail. The cents without Brenner's initials were in production by August 12, 1909.[32] During the halt, owners of vending and slot machines complained that the new pennies were too thick to fit in their machines.[33] Barber was recalled from his vacation in Cape May, New Jersey, to deal with the complaints. Leach ordered changes in the new cent, but Barber resisted Leach's orders, and was in the end successful—vending and slot machine manufacturers modified their machines to suit the new cent, rather than the other way around.[34] By the end of 1909, supply of the new cents was finally up to demand.[35]

Burdette suggests that had MacVeagh been more experienced in his job, he would have been less concerned about the initials. Saint-Gaudens had prominently signed his double eagle on the obverse, and George T. Morgan's design for the silver dollar contained an "M" marked on both sides of the piece.[31]


Cents with and without Brenner's initials were struck at both Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1909. Coins struck at Philadelphia bear no mintmark; those struck at San Francisco were marked with an S. While almost 28 million Philadelphia VDB cents were struck, making them quite common, the 1909-S with Brenner's initials (commonly called the 1909-S VDB) is the rarest Lincoln cent by date and mintmark, with only 484,000 released for circulation.[36] In 1911, the Denver Mint began striking cents with the mintmark D, and in most years in the following decades, all three mints struck cents.[37] In 1916, Barber modified the design, causing Lincoln's cheek and coat to appear less wrinkled.[16] This modification was done to extend die life.[38]


In 1917, a year which saw Barber's death in office at age 77, the wartime economy caused a shortage of cents. At this time, the Lincoln cent had not yet become dominant in circulation; four-fifths of the cents in circulation were of the older Indian Head design. Demand for the cent continued to increase when a luxury tax was instituted, and cents were needed to make change.[39] In 1918, Brenner's initials were restored to the coin, appearing where Lincoln's shoulder is cut off by the rim of the coin.[34]

The recession year of 1922 saw a lower-than-usual demand for coins in commerce, and few cents were coined. At the time, dies were only made at Philadelphia; the Denver Mint had outstanding orders for cents that year. When Denver applied to the Philadelphia Mint for more dies (cents were not struck at either Philadelphia or San Francisco that year), it was told that the Philadelphia Mint could supply no more cent dies, as it was fully engaged in preparing dies for the Peace dollar. Denver filled its orders by striking with a worn-out obverse die, which impressed the design fainter than usual.[16] On many strikes, the mintmark on the die filled with oil and dirt, producing coins on which the mintmark does not appear, or appears only faintly. The 1922 plain piece is another relatively rare one in the Lincoln cent series.[40]

When the 25-year period during which the Lincoln cent could not be changed without congressional approval expired, there was no interest in replacing the design as the coin had remained popular. Beginning in 1936, proof coins were struck for collectors for the first time since 1916. Made only at Philadelphia, these pieces were coined from dies polished to mirror smoothness.[41]

With the US entry into World War II in 1941, copper and tin, which were both used in the cent, were in short supply. Experiments were carried out by several corporations under contract from the Mint; they tested various metallic and non-metallic substances, including fiber, tempered glass, and several types of plastic. These experiments used various designs, since actual Lincoln cent dies could not leave government custody.[42] As the experiments proceeded, production of bronze cents was cut back drastically in July 1942, and ceased in December.[43] On December 18, 1942, Congress gave the mint authorization to change the composition of the cent for a three-year period, and five days later, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau announced that the coin would be made out of zinc-coated steel.[44] Zinc and iron form an electromagnetic "couple"; the two metals soon corrode when in contact with each other in a damp atmosphere.[16] The public soon complained that the new coins were becoming spotted and stained. Another common complaint was confusion with the dime, and some letters suggested that a hole be punched in the center of the new coins. Morgenthau responded that the new pieces would soon become darker, and that the Mint would be willing to darken them if it could figure out a suitable process.[45]

In December 1943, the Treasury Department announced that the steel cent would be discontinued after 1943, to be replaced with coins containing 95% copper and 5% zinc (pre-1943 cents contained the same percentage of copper but might also contain tin in place of some of the zinc). The Treasury also stated that some of the metal for the new coins would be obtained by melting down small arms ammunition shells.[46] However, numismatic writer Shane Anderson, in his study of the Lincoln cent, doubts that any shells were melted down, except perhaps ceremonially.[47] After the war, the Treasury quietly retired as many steel cents as it could from circulation, while denying it was doing so—no public admission of the program was made until 1959, as the Treasury feared that were it publicly known, the coins would be hoarded.[46] A few 1943 bronze cents and 1944 steel cents are known to exist, and are valuable.[48] Only one 1943-D cent in bronze is known; it sold in September 2010 for $1.7 million.[49] One of the four known 1943-S cents in bronze was sold to Texas Rangers baseball team co-chairman Bob R. Simpson for $1 million.[50] There are also many cents dated 1943 that were coated with copper to imitate the genuine rarity. These pieces may be distinguished from genuine off-metal strikes by the use of a magnet.[48] The planchets from which the 1943 and 1944 off-metal strikes were coined were most likely concealed in the coining equipment and were struck when coinage resumed after year end.[47] The cent returned to its prewar composition in 1946.[51]

In 1952, the Mint considered replacing the Lincoln cent with a new design by Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts, but Mint officials feared that the incoming Eisenhower administration would be hostile to replacing a Republican on the cent.[52] Several thousand 1955 pieces were struck with a doubled die, and display doubling of the date. The Mint was aware of the pieces, and knew they were somewhere within a large production lot, but opted to release them, rather than destroy the entire lot. The variety did not become widely known until several years later.[53]

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