The Lincoln Cent, or “Lincoln Penny,” has been produced by the United States Mint since 1909. This coin has maintained the same obverse design for its entire life, making it the longest running coin type in U.S. history, and one of the longest running coin types in numismatic history.
The history of the Lincoln Cent begins with President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1904, President Roosevelt wrote to the Secretary of Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw, expressing his dissatisfaction with the current state of U.S. coinage. The President felt that America’s coins lacked artistic merit, claiming that the designs were insipid and uninspiring, especially when compared to those of European nations. Heeding the President’s wishes, the Mint hired renowned sculptor August Saint-Gaudens to prepare new coin designs. Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens passed away in August 1907, before he was able to complete his designs for the one-cent piece.
Determined to replace the Indian Head design—which had been in use since 1859—Roosevelt sought the advice of Victor David Brenner, a Lithuanian immigrant with superb artistic talent and enormous admiration for Abraham Lincoln. Brenner had already created a plaque and medal to commemorate Lincoln’s birth centennial, and
urged the President to consider the image of Lincoln for the new coin design. As the centennial of the birth of President Lincoln would occur in February 1909, the design would be well-timed. In fact, many American citizens had already written into the U.S. Treasury Department, requesting a Lincoln coin to help commemorate the former
President. In 1909, Roosevelt ordered the Mint to officially hire Brenner to design the Lincoln one-cent piece.
The obverse featured a right-facing portrait of Lincoln. Never before in American numismatic history had a regularly circulating coin featured an actual person. This was also the first time that the motto “In God We Trust” was used on the cent piece.
While the same obverse has been used since the coin’s inception, the reverse design has changed several times. The original reverse, designed by Brenner, featured two sheaves of wheat flanking the sides of the coin. This one-cent piece was often referred to as the “Wheat Penny” and was used from 1909 to 1958.
From 1959 to 2008, the reverse featured an image of the Lincoln Memorial designed by Frank Gasparro. This design was used to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
In 2009, four different designs were created in recognition of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent. The first design, which reflects Lincoln’s birth and early childhood in Kentucky, features a log cabin. This was designed by Richard Masters and sculpted by Jim Licaretz. The second design, which reflects Lincoln’s formative years in Indiana, features a young Lincoln reading while taking a break from rail splitting. This was designed by Charles Vickers. The third design, which reflects Lincoln’s professional life in Illinois, features Lincoln as a lawyer, standing in front of the Illinois State Capitol. This was designed by Joel Iskowitz and sculpted by Don Everhart. The fourth and final design, which reflects Lincoln’s Presidency, features a half completed Capitol dome. This was designed by Susan Gamble and sculpted by Joseph Menna.
In 2010, as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Act, the reverse was changed once again. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, Mitch Sanders, Chairman of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee mentioned it should: “bear an image emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States as a single and united country.” This new reverse design features the union shield, designed by artist Lyndall Bass and sculpted by Mint engraver Joseph Menna.
The composition of the Lincoln penny has also seen several changes. The coin was originally struck in 95% copper. In 1943, when copper was in heavy demand to aid the war effort, the Mint produced the Lincoln Cents from zinc-coated steel. The results proved unsatisfactory, and reverted to 95% copper until 1982, when inflation made copper too expensive to continue with. The Mint then changed the composition to a 97.6% zinc and 2.4% copper.
For more than 100 years, the Lincoln Cent has been an integral part of U.S. history.
With its rich past and pervasive existence, the coin has played a major role in numismatic history. And during this time, it has been produced more than any other coin, not only in America, but in the world.