The History of the Lincoln Cent - Part 2


The 1909 VDB Lincoln Cent Frenzy

As described in Part 1 of this article, the V.D.B. had to be removed from the coin dies, and quickly, because the public was clamoring for the new Lincoln pennies. New penny production had been suspended until the V.D.B. problem was solved. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh made the interesting decision to let the public in on the impending change to the new penny, and the predictable result was that people began hoarding the existing Lincoln Cents, further exacerbating the already short supply. Rumors began to circulate that the government was recalling the V.D.B.'s. Poor Victor David Brenner (who designed the coin, and for whom the V.D.B. stands) was vilified by the media as being arrogant and vain, even though it was U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber who determined the size and placement of these intials!

The First Lincoln Cent Varieties are Issued

By August 12, 1909, a new set of working coin dies had been prepared without the V.D.B. on them. The new issue of pennies soon followed, creating the first major die variety of the Lincoln Cent series. It is worth noting that there were actually six distinct types of U.S. Cents issued in 1909:

  • Indian Head Cent - 1909 (Mintage: 14.4 mil.)
  • Indian Head Cent - 1909-S (Mintage: 309k)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909 VDB (Mintage: 28 mil.)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909-S VDB (Mintage: 484k)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909 (Mintage: 73 mil.)
  • Lincoln Wheat Cent - 1909-S (Mintage: 1.8 mil.)

Although there are some minor die varieties among the various year 1909 Lincoln pennies, the V.D.B. is by far the most well known. In 1918, the V.D.B. was restored to the coin, where it remains to this day. It can be found at the base of Lincoln's bust, in tiny little letters on the portion of the bust that angles downward right near the bottom.

The Wartime Lincoln Cents

The next major event in the Lincoln Cent saga is the change of coin metals made in 1942 and 1943. The U.S. was fighting in the massive World War II, facing enemies on two major fronts (Japan and Europe,) and the government determined that it needed all the copper and tin it could possibly get its hands on to make munitions for the war effort. In 1942, the U.S. Mint took all but a trace of tin out of the cent alloy, which technically changed the metal from bronze to brass. Because the Mint had a supply of existing (bronze) coining strip already prepared, the Lincoln Cents of 1942 are made from both alloys.

The Lincoln Cents Nobody Wanted

By late 1942, the situation had become extreme enough that it was decided to remove all copper from the Lincoln Cents beginning in 1943. Following some hasty experimentation, the U.S. Mint decided to make the pennies from an alternative alloy consisting of steel coated with a thin layer of zinc. This change resulted in a shiny silver penny that was easily confused with a dime when new, and that turned into a corroded piece of junk once the thin zinc coating wore off. Furthermore, the pennies were useless in most vending machines because the anti-fraud technology of the time saw the magnetic steel pennies as slugs!

Needless to say, the steel pennies weren't very popular, and in 1944 the Mint was forced to resume making brass-alloy pennies, wartime or not. Although the government denied that the steel cents would be recalled (hoping to prevent further penny shortages and hoarding,) after the war the Treasury Department quietly directed the banks to remove the steel cents from circulation whenever they encountered them. There are varying stories regarding the ultimate disposition of the 68 million recovered steel pennies. One tale has the government dumping them all into the Pacific Ocean, but the most reliable accounts state that they were melted down at the behest of the Mint.

Lincoln Pennies Made From Melted Bullets

One of the more enduring myths about the Lincoln Cent is that the postwar pennies were all made from melted bullets, artillery shells, and other copper-based military findings. Although it is true that the U.S. armed forces enacted policies to recover spent shell casings and to conserve other copper and tin waste, the reasons probably had more to do with overall conservation of scarce metal resources than a worry about what to make pennies out of. Nonetheless, a quantity of spent shell casings eventually did make their way to the Mint, which contributed to the brass coining alloy used for Lincoln Cents in 1944 through 1946. In 1947, the Lincoln Cent alloy returned to the bronze composition used before the war.

The Famous 1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cents

No history of the Lincoln Cent would be complete without a mention of the famous 1955 Doubled Die Penny. This remarkable minting error was the result of a coin die getting two separate impressions hubbed into it. The result was that an estimated 20,000 to 24,000 coins were struck which had extreme doubling. The most remarkable fact surrounding the discovery of the 1955 doubled die pennies is that the U.S. Mint caught the mistake before the coins left the Mint, but decided to let them out anyway, hoping nobody would notice!

The 1955 Doubled Die Lincoln Cent was a turning point in U.S. numismatics. Due to the great publicity the error received, more people than ever began taking an interest in collecting coins, and the hobby of searching for die varieties moved into the mainstream.

The Lincoln Cent Gets a New Reverse

As the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent approached, (which coincided with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's birth,) the U.S. Mint gave in to popular pressure and created a new reverse design. Beginning in 1959, the reverse side of the Lincoln Cent featured the Lincoln Memorial building, which was dedicated in 1922.