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Lincoln cent designs evolve over time

After circulating for more than three generations, the Lincoln Memorial cent moves out of the home stretch.
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After circulating for more than three generations, the Lincoln Memorial cent moves out of the home stretch, temporarily being replaced with four different renderings associated with the life of Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago on Feb. 16, 1809.


The legislation that authorized it has plans for 2010: “The design on the reverse of the 1-cent coins issued after December 31, 2009, shall bear an image emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and United country.”

Of course, nothing symbolizes that precise description better than the Memorial built to the memory of Lincoln and bearing the Daniel Chester French larger-than-life statue.

Since its introduction in 1959, more than 380 billion Lincoln cents have been produced – accounting for 90 percent of the Mint’s production of minor coinage between 1793 and 1980, and in any given year at least 70 percent of the overall production statistics at the Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and West Point mints.

In fact, more Lincoln Memorial cents have been produced than all the coins produced by all of the world mints from the beginning of time (the Lydian) until the present – though as the December, 2008 U.S. Mint Annual Report shows, the Mint is losing money on each one cent coin it produces.

When the Lincoln Memorial Cent was first authorized, all of the mints combined had already produced about 28 billion one cent coins. This total begins at the time that the Philadelphia Mint initially manufactured large cents in 1793, through Dec. 31, 1958.

Through 1980, the last year that the Mint formally published an accounting, an eye-popping 174 billion cents were produced by all United States mints, combined; subtracting those issued prior to 1959, and that leaves an even more incredible 156 billion Lincoln Memorial Cents struck at Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and West Point, bearing two mintmarks, D and S. (The West Point and Philadelphia mints utilize no mintmark in production of their circulating one cent coinage).

With 1980-2008 production added, more than 380 billion Lincoln memorial cents have been coined since Jan. 2, 1959.

Even as the cost of cent production makes the cent threatened with economic extinction, 62 percent of all Americans want the cent retained, according to a Gallup poll released May 23, 1990.

After its own examination, the Government Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’s independent accounting arm, released a statement on May 23, 1990, to the House coinage subcommittee favoring continuation of the one cent coin issue.

Victor David Brenner’s portrait of the martyred 16th President of the United States was introduced into circulation in 1909. For a half century, the exquisitely, bold portraiture and the simplistic reverse, were representative of the type of coinage of that generation – whose artistic merit also yielded the Saint-Gauden’s $20 gold piece, the MacNeil quarter dollar, Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar, and Fraser’s Indian Head or Buffalo nickel.

No small wonder that the initial legislative battle to use the coin as a commemorative calls for a restoration of the Brenner design with its intimate detailed portrait of Lincoln.

Originally, the Lincoln cent was issued to mark the centennial of the Great Emancipator’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809; the golden anniversary of the coin’s minting also marked the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, a time ripe to implement a design change.

There was no design competition, no jury, and not even an initial pronouncement beyond a directive from the Secretary of the Treasury to work on a design for a new reverse. Assistant engravers on the staff of the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia were invited to submit their versions of what a reverse design might encompass for a new one cent coin.

Frank Gasparro, then a young engraver on the staff of the Philadelphia Mint, was given the opportunity to create the reverse by Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts, himself a talented artist.

The Commission on Fine Arts was brought into the process relatively early. After the internal competition at the Mint settled on Gasparro to sculpt the new coin, the Commission was to see the initial final sketch on Nov. 18, 1958.

L.R. Wilson, Secretary of the Fine Arts Commission in a memorandum dated Nov. 6, 1958, enclosed sketches of two projects received from the Treasury Department which required action prior to the meeting.
The Gasparro rendering had the box-like building with its name underneath, just as Monticello is found on the reverse of the Jefferson nickel. There was no need to; unlike the nickel, whose building depiction might not be readily recognizable, this pantheon was the well-known temple honoring the man who saved a Union.

Because of the urgent production schedule at the Mint, recommendations were obtained by mail and given verbally to the Director of the Mint.

For the reverse of the Lincoln cent, as requested by the “Lincoln Centennial Commission,” the criticism was succinct: “The design is overloaded. Suggest elimination of stars and words ‘Lincoln Memorial’ among other things.”

Thus, much of the lettering intended by the designer to denominate the coin, was deemed unnecessary.

Several members of the Commission were unable to personally participate. Felix de Weldon telephoned from Cuba on the morning of Nov. 12, 1958, and “recommended that the words Lincoln Memorial and also the stars be omitted as they unduly crowded the field. He also said the Lincoln Memorial is drawn incorrectly, the architrave above the columns is too high.”

Mr. Orr, in a telephone call to David E. Finley the same day, thought the Lincoln Memorial was “unduly large.”

By Dec. 8, 1958, L.R. Wilson wrote to William Brett, Director of the Mint, confirming that the Commission “gave its general approval for the design for changing the reverse of the Lincoln penny ...”

The reason for the promptness was the “urgency of the production schedule at the Mint,” and the Commission noted that “while the members believe that the changes in the design of the penny were not desirable, they felt that any change in the design should be limited to the replica of the Lincoln Memorial itself, but stressed that such representation must be absolutely accurate in architectural detail.”

At the same time, the sketch submitted for study was returned by the Commission to the Mint, though a copy was retained for the Commission’s files. In succeeding years, the Mint’s copy has been reproduced, losing some of the detail found in Gasparro’s initial fine sketch.

Shaded in a style designed to highlight the architecture of the building, its shrubbery, and the simple majesty of the building, the initial sketch shows a barely visible Lincoln statue; in fact, the early coins struck show it more distinctly than the pencil drawing.

As Kenneth E. Bressett observed in Collectible American Coins (1991), “The details of this design are so precise that under magnification the statute of Lincoln can be seen in the center of the building between the columns.”

It was clear that with the Commission’s approval, a new coin was slated for circulation. Indeed, the ANA’s monthly publication, The Numismatist reported in its January 1959 issue that President Eisenhower made the announcement of the design change on Dec. 20, 1958.

The 1959 Annual Report of the Director of the Mint itself dryly stated several months later, “a change of design was made in the one cent piece at the beginning of January 1959. The portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse of the coin remains unchanged. 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... The Lincoln-Wheat Wreath design one-cent piece, coined continuously from June 1909 through December 1958 will continue to circulate...”

Even as the new coin was issued, controversy concerning the new design was far from over. While the Mint was producing the first of the coins that would ultimately constitute its most widely manufactured product, the Fine Arts Commission was handling criticism of the design selected.

At its Feb. 18, 1959, meeting, the chairman read a letter to members received from the National Sculpture Society criticizing the change in design of the Lincoln cent.

“With good intent, but through artistic oversight, an act of desecration has been committee by our government,” protested Adlai S. Hardin, president of the National Sculpture Society. “We refer to the change in the reverse side of the one cent coin as a feature of the Lincoln sesquicentennial celebration.”

The letter, whose text is found in the archives of the Commission on Fine Arts Commission, and was made available as a result of a query made under the Freedom of Information Act, began with a recitation of the recent history of coinage design, terming them “miniature works of art,” emphasizing the artistic merit that resulted from the time of President Theodore Roosevelt.

“Each artist, of course, designed both sides of the coin, a fundamental principle of medallic art,”, Hardin wrote, referring to the “artisic triumph” of Fraser, Weinman, MacNeil, Flanagan, and de Francisci, together with “Saint-Gaudens, himself, [who] made the models for the $10 and $20 gold pieces.”

At its 65th annual meeting, the National Sculpture Society had considered the design change and determined to protest the new coin on three different grounds.

First, it said, “the scale and character of the original coin has been lost through violation of the unwritten, a common sense law that both sides of the coin or medal should be designed by the same sculptor.”

Claiming that the new coin resembled “the design of the typical transportation token,” basic criticism was that “the government ... could have designed an entirely new coin around the Lincoln Memorial theme if it had so desired. Such a splendid opportunity to show artistic ability of our country was lost because someone practiced false economy.”

On Feb.18, 1959, the Commission on Fine Arts heard a draft of a letter that its chairman, David E. Finley, intended to send to the National Sculpture Society; the minutes of the meeting record that “The members approved the draft reply”, which was made part of the official record.

In response, Chairman Finley surprisingly reported that the members of the Commission “agreed, of course, with the position taken by the National Sculpture Society that either a new coin or medal should be designed where the artist who designed it originally should be asked to revise the design if a change is to be made on one of the sides.”

The reason, however, for the action was explained succinctly: “In the case of the Lincoln penny, the Director of the Mint was at somewhat of a disadvantage. The Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission desired that the new Lincoln penny issued on Feb. 12 and the notice was so short that the Director of the Mint apparently had no opportunity to have an entirely new design made for the coin.”

Significantly, Finley reported that “The Director of the Mint, Mr. William Brett, regrets the occurrence and expects that in the future to submit designs to the Fine Arts Commission in time to receive its considered advise on such matters.

As subsequent history has shown, the Commission on Fine Arts has not been consulted by the Mint with either the frequency that is warranted, or at a time when designs can appropriately be changed to reflect artistic recommendations.

But that was in the future as the sleek Lincoln Memorial reverse began production on Jan. 2, 1959, in a run that would stretch for more than four decades. Actual issuance of the newly designed coin took place on Feb. 12, 1959, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

Nearly everyone who has seen the Lincoln Memorial, firsthand, feels the awe of the simplicity and the majesty of the structure. Miraculously, Gasparro translated the awesome stone structure to a small flan of barely two centimeters in diameter.

The edifice does not seem to crowd the coin. Details show, right down to 22 steps on the Memorial’s stairway, artistic license since the actual Memorial is the size of a nine-story building and is built on land a half acre in size.

Gasparro initially took the same approach as the Jefferson nickel -- and his early drawings of the edifice on the coin depict “Lincoln Memorial” beneath. It was deemed superfluous, because the rendering was so true, detailed, accurate, and beautiful, that there was no need to clutter the design with additional verbiage.

Gasparro’s version shows a seated Lincoln in the chair of his Greek-styled temple, and on a newly minted specimen it is almost possible to see the face and body of Daniel Chester French’s dynamic sculpture.

The Memorial itself began as an attempt to honor the 16th American president in 1867, two years after he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Congress authorized a Lincoln Monument Association to be created as a vehicle for public subscription.

Like the Washington Monument that had been authorized a generation earlier, this venture was destined for failure, and it was not until 1911 that Congress finally appropriated funds necessary to begin preliminary planning.

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.

Production of the Lincoln Memorial cent has always been a top priority of the Mint at each of its facilities, principally because so many coins are required. Its existence was the reason that the new Mint in Philadelphia, opened in 1969, has unusual production design facilities.

Initially, there was to be a single press – the Coin Roller developed by General Motors – that would punch out, blank and strike thousands of cents per minute, replacing all of the older, reliable presses that were in service for generations.

“The coin roller worked for 20 minutes,” was the way that Frank Gasparro, by then chief engraver, told me in a June 11, 1975 interview, about six years after the event. Mounted on a “circular drum holding the dies”, the rotation came in contact with strip and blanked the coin, upsetting the rim, and placed the coin’s image on obverse and reverse in one combined operation.

“The dies cracked from the tremendous heat and pressure,” Gasparro recalled; examples of coins from the coin roller, shown at the 1969 ANA convention in a floor tour, were never placed into circulation.

This coin for all seasons has, in fact, been struck in many different ways, on many different presses, and from a variety of different dies in multiple metallic combinations. Some have been seen by the public, others have a more singular existence.

Commencing its existence by utilizing the standard bronze composition that was common in the post war years, the Lincoln Memorial cent changed its composition with the modifications effected in 1962, when President Kennedy signed Public Law 87-643 into effect on Sept. 5, eliminating tin from the coin.

Zinc was added so that the ultimate mixture was 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc. Weight stayed the same at 3.11 grams per coin, or a few over 140 coins per pound according to the calculations utilized by the Mint in the following decade.

In 1973, an aluminum version was produced (dated in advance to read 1974) as the price of copper rose in the world market – and all who saw it were impressed with the details that this soft metal picked up of the Lincoln Memorial side of the coin. Hearings were held in March, 1974, before the House Banking Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs & Coinage to discuss the possibilities of the issuance of an aluminum cent.

At least a dozen examples, and perhaps as many as 16 pieces, were shipped from the Mint to Capitol Hill for various members of Congress and staffers to examine. They, and slug samples, were shown on March 27, 1974, at a hearing of the Consumer Affairs subcommittee chaired by Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan, D-Mo.

Her key aide, Charles B. (“Chuck”) Holstein took one of the aluminum cents as a pocket piece, and it remained in his wallet for more than two years. When controversy arose concerning the coins, he promptly sent his to the Smithsonian Institution, where it permanently reposes.

Both the Smithsonian and the ANA Museum have examples in their collection of the aluminum cent blanks (type 1, rim not upset) that were shown to the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs in March, 1974.
This marked my first appearance as a witness before Congress, and I took the opportunity to challenge the Mint for its data interpretation, demonstrating that aluminum was not, at that time, suitable to replace the cent.

Eventually, the price of copper receded but Congress recognized that the long-term threat to the cent did not. They agreed that an aluminum coin was not appropriate, but enacted legislation on Oct. 11, 1974 authorizing the Secretary of the Treasury to diminish the amount of copper (and change the ratio of zinc included in the cent) simply by publishing notice of intention to do so. No immediate action was taken.

By the start of the 1980s, it was apparent that the price of copper (which was rising again), combined with the effects of inflation, would require either a philosophical change on the part of the government (producing cents at a loss) or a compositional change (moving to a less expensive metal).

Under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, copper was virtually eliminated in the cent, whose core component was changed to zinc. A plating of copper, three-thousandths thick, was authorized as a substitute – to remain in technical compliance with the requirements of the 1974 law permitting change.

In the 21st century, the threat to the Lincoln Memorial cent is no longer the metal, but the denomination itself, which some claim is an anachronism, albeit one that is more than two centuries old. Philosophy, and political necessity, rather than economics, will no doubt decide the fate of this coin.

As the series winds down, and into history, the question arises as to what will become of the denomination in 2010, when the Lincoln bicentennial celebration ends. Those are issues for another day.