This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Every time a poll is taken, coin collectors support continuation of the Lincoln cent in production even though the coin has almost no purchasing power.
That is not a surprise.
It is the largest collection of United States coins that can be attempted. Just about everybody alive today has a birth year that can be marked by one.
The birth of any collector’s interest in numismatics might either have started with Lincolns or been nurtured by them.
To advocate the abolition of the coin is like cutting off your own past.
With so many coins in a set there are bound to be some good dates and some interesting ones as well. In fact, there are both and with so many choices whether you attempt a complete set, which is actually surprisingly affordable, or simply try to acquire some of the better dates, the Lincoln cent should be fun as it can probably be stated that over the years no coin of the United States has provided as much fun to as many people as the Lincoln cent.
It can safely be stated that the Lincoln cent more than most coins in U.S. history started off with a bang. That was to be expected when President Theodore Roosevelt had told Victor D. Brenner to go ahead with an idea for a Lincoln cent. Roosevelt stopped short of telling Brenner to make new designs for all the coins, which had been Brenner's other idea. Unfortunately for Brenner, the idea that he wanted to redo all U.S. coin designs was the sort of thing that would make the motives of Brenner suspect throughout the Lincoln cent redesign process.
Actually Brenner’s design would never really be a subject of controversy and as the obverse is still with us today, few could question the quality. It was the idea of portraying a past President that was certain to create at least a few waves. After all, no former American had ever been depicted on a circulating coin, but that tradition did not impress Roosevelt even though it stretched back all the way to George Washington who had joined with the House of Representatives in opposing the idea of using the President on the coins.
Realistically, the correct view of Washington’s objection to using the President has always been subject to challenge. At the time there were really no historical American figures in the minds of most and not having the sitting President on the coins seemed like a good idea to most as it would have been very English kinglike to do otherwise and such a connection could have had explosive political implications as well since the Federalists in Washington’s cabinet were charged by their opponents as harboring royalist tendencies.
By the early 1900s, however, times had changed. Honoring Lincoln seemed like a fine idea to Roosevelt. As was often the case, Roosevelt was not going to let a little thing like some decision by George Washington back in 1792 stand in his way.
All that said, the sudden appearance of a famous American on the cent was going to create comment. That was especially true in light of the fact that Lincoln had died just under 44 years earlier, so there were still many who remembered him. In fact, there were still many alive who had unprintable opinions of Lincoln for having waged war against their state and region. Lincoln might not seem controversial today, but it is not certain that Lincoln’s popularity was quite as universal back in 1909.
The early reactions to the Lincoln cent reflect the split. The Numismatist was excited. It wrote, “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.”
The New York Times was not as enthusiastic, suggesting the Lincoln cent was “another ill-considered freak of Mr. Roosevelt's will.” Actually, it already showed one case where Roosevelt had lost at least a battle as he was now out of office and the new President William Howard Taft had insisted that IN GOD WE TRUST be added to the design despite the fact that Roosevelt had a long-standing belief that it was not appropriate on coins.
As it turned out, despite the fact that the Lincoln cent has lasted a century there was an assortment of problems in the design process centering around Brenner. Realistically, Brenner was not going to get a warm reception at the Mint where Chief Engraver Charles Barber wanted little to do with any outside artists and especially ones supported by Theodore Roosevelt.
Brenner did not help his cause with his early designs, which included one that was just a copy of a French two-franc piece while also using Latinized V-shaped “Us.” The real nagging problem was as the Mint Director observed that Brenner, “insists upon putting his full name on the obverse side.”
There had been initials on coins in the past, but at least where coins of the United States were concerned full names were just not used and the Secretary of the Treasury who approved the design made it perfectly clear that only initials would be allowed. That was when the real fun began.
The Lincoln cent was released on Aug. 2 and on Aug. 5 there was an emergency meeting and a halt in production as officials held a meeting with Chief Engraver Charles Barber over what to do about the VDB initials on the reverse. Their location there was much less prominent recognition than the artist wanted, but much more than what the public would stand. The meeting produced a decision that was probably guided by Barber, suggesting that changes were either impossible or time consuming. The option to using just a “B” in another location was ruled out in favor of simply removing any initials and that was the decision that would stand until after Barber’s death when they were added in a different location.
The mintages of Lincoln cents with the small VDB on the reverse stood at 27,995,000 coins from Philadelphia and a small 484,000 from San Francisco. The two are the only Lincoln cents to carry the VDB on the reverse, making them significant type coins.
The 1909-S VDB, however, became more than just a type coin. It is a key date not regularly included in a type set, but the Philadelphia 1909 VDB was produced and saved in significant numbers, making it the one example of the type for type collectors as well as the historic first Lincoln cent.
There is really no doubt that the 1909 VDB ranks as one of the most historically important coins in U.S. history as it was not only the first Lincoln cent but also the first circulating coin to depict a famous American. Fortunately, all the interest and excitement back in 1909 saw many saved and that means you can acquire an example in MS-60 for roughly $25 today while an MS-65 lists at just $195. Supplies are certainly well above average, but so is demand as the 1909 VDB always will be a special coin.
If anything, we can probably appreciate the 1909 VDB more today with the passage of time, but the real stir back in 1909 was over that 484,000 mintage 1909-S VDB. The 1909-S VDB became an immediate sensation with children trying to get $1 for examples on street corners. There have never been enough examples of the 1909-S VDB to meet the demand – not in 1909 or 1959 or today. The 1909-S became the key regular date Lincoln cent from the day it was first issued and it remains that way today at $765 in G-4 more than $500 more than its nearest regular issue competition, the 1914-D.
The 1909-S VDB like the 1909 VDB was saved, which has helped make Mint State examples more available than would otherwise be the case. An MS-60 lists for $1,825 and an MS-65 is $6,850. In fact the numbers available do not support the prices as the Professional Coin Grading Service alone has seen more than 100 in red MS-66 and even larger numbers in lower grades. Certainly some coins have been graded more than once, but the point with the 1909-S VDB is the demand. Virtually any collector active today who was a youngster in the 1950s and early 1960s dreamed of finding a 1909-S VDB in circulation. It was actually closer to a passion than a dream and that is why there is such special demand as many of those collectors who never found a 1909-S VDB in circulation purchase an example in later life to finally realize that dream of their youth.
As desirable as the 1909-S VDB is, it can probably be suggested that being scarce is only part of its story as the 1909-S VDB influenced generations of collectors. The quest to find a 1909-S VDB was fun even if you never got lucky enough to actually find one. That fun kept generation after generation collecting. There have been few, if any other coins like it in the history of American numismatics even though it is not a great rarity like a 1913 Liberty Head nickel or 1894-S dime.
The 1909-S with a mintage of 1,825,000 was no 1909-S VDB, but it was an awfully good date, one of very few with a mintage under 2 million. It could almost be said that the 1909-S was a poor man’s 1909-S VDB, but in reality the 1909-S deserves much more respect than that. It was saved as well but at $115 in G-4, the 1909-S is one of very few Lincoln dates over $50 in G-4. Its Mint State prices are not as high as might be expected simply because supplies do exist, but in any grade the 1909-S stands as one of the great Lincoln cents and after nearly a century that is saying a lot.
The 1911-D gets little or no respect, which is natural as it was a date from the period before 1916 and the San Francisco and Denver dates from that period are better, but the San Francisco dates had lower mintages than the dates from Denver. What makes the 1911-D special is that it was the first cent ever produced at the Denver facility and that makes it historic. Prior to 1908 no cents had been made outside Philadelphia as there was a law preventing the production of coins containing no gold or silver outside the mother mint. That law was repealed in 1906 and San Francisco cents followed in 1908. Denver, however, was still in its first years of operation and that saw a delay until 1911 for cents. The 1911-D was the first and with a mintage of under 13 million, it is not only historic but also better and that is especially true in MS-65 where it tops $1,000 at $1,450.
Among the regular dates in top grades the 1914-D has historically been the key usually followed closely by the companion 1914-S. We cannot be sure what happened in 1914, but we can be sure whatever it was it did not involve saving top quality cents of that year. In MS-65 today the 1914-D is the key at $24,500 while the 1914-S trails at $9,350 although it is now in a group including the 1924-S and 1925-S, which are all in the $10,000 price range.
It is an interesting situation as historically the 1914-D and 1914-S have been close in price. Back in 1998 the 1914-D in MS-65 was $3,900 while the 1914-S was $3,800. By 2002 they were both $10,000, but since then the only movement to higher prices has been by the 1914-D. The grading services actually have it the other way with the 1914-S being tougher in MS-65 and up with it having appeared 49 times at PCGS as opposed to 87 times for the 1914-D. It is the same at Numismatic Guaranty Corp. where the 1914-D has been graded 56 times as opposed to 34 for the 1914-S.
The dates from the 1920s have been frequently overlooked, but in cases like the 1923-S, 1924-S and 1925-S that is changing in MS-65. The date from the 1920s that was fascinating and which is the real key in MS-65 is the 1922 plain, or “no D” cent, which is an interesting story.
In 1922 with the mints seemingly doing little but silver dollars, the only Lincoln cent mintage was in Denver and that was just 7,160,000 pieces. In that number were a number where the die had its mintmark progressively clogged with a residue and in the later stages that die was completely filled, so when it struck a coin, it produced no mintmark at all. Three dies were involved with the second being the one that produced both no mintmark on the obverse and a strong strike on the reverse.
The tough 1922 “no D” is currently $725 in G-4, but it is really difficult in higher grades with an MS-60 at $10,500 while an MS-65 lists for $160,000. In MS-65 the price is almost impossible to predict as NGC has never graded an MS-65 and PCGS reports just two.
The 1930s saw another sensation in the form of the 1931-S. The 1931-S had a mintage under 1 million and that was the first time that had happened since the 1909-S VDB. It was the start of the Great Depression and Americans desperate for ways to pay the bills learned of the 1931-S and saved it in large numbers. That has made the 1931-S more available in Mint State and in grades of XF-40 and up than would normally be the case. That makes it an interesting coin as it is better, but at $112 in MS-60 it is still far less than a fortune that people during the Great Depression thought it might reach.
The 1940s saw no great coins as by then mintages were heavy and there were more collectors. The 1943 cents, however, have always been popular as they are true souvenirs of World War II. The zinc coated steel cents were issued in large numbers and many promptly oxidized. They were quickly replaced with coins made from recycled shell cases and the normal composition, but with their different color the 1943 cents have always been popular. They are readily available in MS-65, with a set from the three mints being right around $50 in MS-65 and when you realize these cents were made to conserve metals needed in the war effort it has to be felt that they are a great buy for historic souvenirs of the war.
Collectors during the circulation finds era often bought reprocessed cents that restored the surface brilliance of the coins – but, of course, such an alteration removes the coins from every having collector value.
The 1950s saw another Lincoln cent grab the attention of the nation. It was not a regular date but rather what a dealer friend has called “the perfect error.” The 1955 doubled-die obverse first appeared in New England and upper New York State, but over time they would pop up at any number of other locations and that was part of the appeal. The 1955 doubled-die obverse was an easily spotted error, which helped its popularity, and certainly it was rare, but not too rare. There were a potential 20,000 examples produced and that made it a perfect error as everyone could not find one, but just enough people found them to keep everyone’s hopes alive.
The 1955 doubled-die obverse has lost none of its appeal, listing for $1,600 in XF-40 and $43,500 in MS-65. Unlike other Lincolns there are really few if any lower grade examples as the 1955 doubled-die obverse caused a national frenzy of checking rolls and bags with few escaping long enough to drop very far in grade before being discovered and removed from circulation.
The arrival of the Lincoln Memorial reverse design in 1959 was probably the second most exciting event of the 1950s for Lincoln cent collectors. The Lincoln Memorial reverse Lincolns produced since 1959 have become known for a series of errors such as the proof 1990 that was created without an “S” mintmark as well as a number of doubled dies including the 1983, 1984 and 1995.
The cost of making cents going all the way back to the time of large cents has always been a concern for officials and since the change to the Lincoln Memorial reverse there have been a couple changes in the composition and a 1974 attempt at aluminum cents that was not approved. The most interesting change in 1982 resulted in the current composition, but that year saw the production of both old and new composition Lincoln cents with sometimes large and sometimes small dates. It makes the cents of 1982 a small collection by themselves, with the copper-plated zinc Philadelphia small date being the toughest of the business strikes at $9 in MS-65.
The Lincoln cent remains a fascinating collection where the next interesting or perhaps even tough and expensive date seems to always be just around the corner. The interesting dates and stories are many as might be expected of a coin dating back to 1909. For those who want a large collection and one that is an unusually large amount of fun to assemble, the Lincoln cent remains every bit as good a choice for a collection today as it was for those of us who were excited by its circulations finds potential back in 1959.