The History of the Lincoln Penny – Part 3: The Modern Cent
By | January 24, 2018

The ubiquitous Lincoln one-cent coin holds the record as the longest-running coin design in history. First released in 1909, it has been in continuous production for over 100 years with over 500 billion coins made

In this, the third of three parts, we look at the coin’s journey through the postwar era up until today.

Back to Basics

After experiments with brass and zinc to conserve strategic metals during the war, the Lincoln cent returned to its original bronze alloy in 1947. The familiar Brenner wheat reverse remained on the coin for the next dozen years despite brief consideration given in 1952 to changing the cent’s design at the end of its authorized run. But Mint officials discarded the notion, fearing that the incoming Republican president, Eisenhower, would object to having his party’s first president removed.

End of the Wheatie

1959 marked the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, so to commemorate it the Mint replaced Brenner’s wheat reverse with a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial. The designer, Frank Gasparro, had never actually seen the Memorial, instead working from photos, and his engraving was widely panned upon the coin’s release. On critic said it resembled a trolley car rather than the actual structure. Nonetheless, it remained in production for fifty years until it was replaced by a series of designs commemorating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

The coin continued to be made of 95% copper until escalating copper prices led to a copper-plated coin of 97.5% zinc. But even with the lower-cost zinc substitution, it still costs about 1½ cents to make a penny.

2009 Bicentennial Cents

To celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the 2005 Presidential Coin Act specified new designs for the reverse of the Lincoln cent to depict events of the popular president’s life. Debuted in a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial in September 2008, the designs were:

  • A log cabin representing Lincoln’s early life Kentucky. It was released in 2009 on his birthdate, February 12, at a ceremony in Hodgenville, Kentucky, his birthplace.
  • Lincoln’s formative years in Indiana. The design showed a young Lincoln reading while sitting on a log on break from rail-splitting. It was released on May 14, 2009.
  • Lincoln the Lawyer. Released on August 13, the coin depicts Lincoln as a young attorney standing in front of the Illinois state capitol building.
  • Lincoln the President. The reverse depicts the US Capitol with a half-completed dome as it was at the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861.

Besides the copper-plated coins made for circulation, collectors’ sets were minted in the original 95% copper brass alloy.

The Union Shield Cent

After rejecting several designs during most of 2009 to succeed the Bicentennial coins, consensus was finally reached and a new reverse design. It featured a Union shield with 13 vertical stripes representing the original colonies topped by a bar with the US motto, E Pluribus Unum, on it joining them as a sign of national unity. “One Cent” was written on a ribbon across the shield’s face. This design was originally released early in January 2010 in Puerto Rico due to a coin shortage on the island, but production flaws were noted, and new dies were used for the coin’s official release at the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois on February 11.

Departing from tradition, cent coins struck in Philadelphia in 2017 bore a P mintmark to commemorate the Mint’s 225th anniversary. The mintmark will be eliminated on Philadelphia coins again beginning in 2018.

Key Dates for Collectors

While most postwar one-cent coins are only worth their face value, several are considered collectible for a variety of reasons. These include doubled die coins, date size variations, and the infamous 1959-D “Mule Cent.”

We’ll cover those key date coins in a future article. Meanwhile, we hope you’ve enjoyed our account of the fascinating history of the Lincoln cent, the world’s longest-running coin.

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