All about the Lincoln cent!
Abe Lincoln , the most revered of all Presidents appears in the obverse of the cent or penny (taken from the British penny for the smallest denomination!) from the year 1909. Lincoln cent or Lincoln Penny as it is called has seen many changes in the reverse design but the obverse has been constant for the last 107 years. It was designed by Victor David Brenner using a photograph of the 16th President by Mathew Brady.
Why Lincoln for the cent?
Lincoln who came from humble origins from Kentucky, educated himself and became a lawyer from Illinois. His political career skyrocketed when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846. After facing some setbacks, he came back to the political scene as one of the leaders responsible for building the Grand Old Party - the Republican party in 1854. It stood for the ideals of abolishing slavery, modernism, and the preservation of the Union. Lincoln was elected President from the Republican party in 1860.
With an anti-slavery President in the White House, the predominantly pro-slavery Southern states opted for secession from the Union. As we know a civil war broke out. Almost immediately after his oath, Honest Abe (as he was called later) had to take control of the war with the Confederate states. With a deft war strategy and an uncanny ability to find good war Generals, Lincoln proved himself to be a true Commander-in-Chief. He could rally the support of the Northern states completely and unequivocally to get a resounding victory for the Union. But just after the surrender of the confederates, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a confederates supporter.
When Americans were beginning to forget '...life, liberty and pursuit of happiness', Lincoln stood up for these Jeffersonian ideals and the absolute truth of 'all men are created equal' ! No wonder, when Lincoln's centennial birth anniversary came up in 1909, Roosevelt, a fellow Republican decided to portray Lincoln in the cent.
Lincoln cent - The design history
President Theodore Roosevelt was dissatisfied with the coin designs of the time. He wrote a letter to the Secretary of Treasury suggesting the use of designs from independent sculptors like Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The mint hired Saint-Gaudens to redesign the gold coins; Double Eagle, Eagle, Half Eagle and Quarter Eagle (More about that here) and the cent. He designed the gold eagles, but before he could design the cent, Saint-Gaudens passed away. The initial design of a flying eagle that he had given for the cent was used for the double eagle as an eagle could not appear in a cent as per law.
Victor David Brenner, the sculptor who designed a medal for Roosevelt, was chosen by the President himself for designing the cent. From the time he was commissioned, Brenner was clear that the President's intention was to release a Lincoln cent.
Brenner used the profile of the photograph by Mathew Brady of Lincoln for the obverse design. In it Lincoln was sitting in profile. It was taken along with the famous picture of him reading to his son Tad. For the reverse, Brenner initially submitted a design borrowed from the then French coin designer Oscar Roty. Mint Director Frank A. Leach rejected the reverse design. Brenner resubmitted his designs with a design of 'two ears of durum wheat' for the reverse. The Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber had further suggestions on the design to make it suitable for coinage. After many changes, the obverse and reverse designs were finally approved. On August 2nd 1909, 20 million coins were released and people came in hordes to get them. The Treasury officials had to ration them after some time to satisfy the waiting customers.
Lincoln cents - Different Reverses
While the Lincoln cent obverse has remained constant all these years, the reverse has changed many times over. The original reverse design or the Wheat cent as it is referred to was produced from 1909 to 1958. In the early years of the Wheat cent, Brenner's initials 'VDB' appear only in the 1909 coins. The 1909-S with the 'VDB' initials are quite rare as only 484,000 were released.The initials were removed after that 1st year as they were considered too prominent and reinstated in 1918.
In 1959, for Lincoln's 150th birth anniversary, it was decided to change the reverse design of the Lincoln cent. Frank Gasparro, created a design of the Lincoln Memorial for the reverse with 'ONE CENT' below it and E-Pluribus-Unum just above it. The design was struck till 2008.
In 2009, for Lincoln's birth bicentennial, four different reverses were introduced. These were to celebrate Lincoln's birth and early child-hood in Kentucky, formative years in Indiana, professional life in Illinois and the Presidency in Washington DC.
In 2010, the Union shield was designed by artist Lyndall Bass and sculpted by US mint sculptor-engraver Joseph Menna. It was 'emblematic of the preservation of the United States of America as a united country'.
The cent is forever a reminder of the President who believed in our founding fathers' ideals. It is also a reminder of the price that our country had to pay to preserve a way of life; the Civil war. This war has been embellished and romanticised many times over in popular culture, through books, movies, re-enactments and more. But the stark reality of it and what it meant to the preservation of the United States is perhaps best answered by Lincoln himself in his own eloquent yet forthright manner, "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came"
For the man who stood steadfast in preserving the ideals of a country caught up in the web of slavery, the enduring Lincoln cent design is a true testimony to his greatness!