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The Lincoln Cent – Part I – The Beginning
Incredibly, from 1909 through 2004, over 400 billion pennies have been minted. Yes, that is over four hundred billion, as in billion with a "B". That is roughly 1400 pennies per each US Citizen. If you have a jar, can, piggy bank, no doubt you have your share. More cents are produced than any other denomination. The lifespan of the Lincoln cent has spanned two world wars, several other wars, the first commercial jet flight, trips to the moon, Y2K and the invention of nearly everything we use today and take for granted. Yes, that little penny has been around for nearly 100 years and has seen a few changes such as changes in its design and changes in the metal content.
How did this design, the staple of our pocket change come about? Way back in 1908, Victor D Brenner began designing a medal of Theodore Roosevelt marking the construction of the Panama Canal. Brenner had earlier created a plaque of Lincoln using a February 9th, 1864 photograph as the model. When Roosevelt saw the plaque of Lincoln, he was impressed. Brenner confided to the president that he was a great admirer of Lincoln and suggested that a portrait of Lincoln should be put on a U.S. coin. Although George Washington and Lincoln had appeared on pattern issues of the 1860s, as of 1908 no American president, or real person, had ever appeared on a coin made for regular circulation. The timing was right as Roosevelt had previously commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1907 to redesign all American coinage including the Indian Head penny which had been around for nearly 50 years. Unfortunately Saint-Gaudens died that summer. Thus Roosevelt was open to ideas from other artists and was intrigued by the idea of using Lincoln on the cent and also coincided with his desire to honor his fellow Republican (it was all politics back then also) and the 100 year anniversary of his birth and consequently asked Brenner to submit a design. Brenner choose the penny as the coin to honor Lincoln as he felt it was appropriate to honor the “people’s” president on the most common coin. Originally, the design for the reverse was the same pattern as a French two-franc coin and had “United States of America” across the top of the reverse with his name “BRENNER” in small letters across the bottom.
The design was immediately rejected by Mint officials as they did not like the use of a design identical to a French coin. They also did not like Brenner’s name being prominently displayed on the coin. They advised him to use only his initials as was common on other coins. Brenner redesigned the reverse with two stalks of wheat, the words ONE CENT over United States of America and his initials “VDB” on the bottom and the national motto, E PLURIBUS UNUM, which means "One out of Many" circling the top. Brenner’s design did not originally include the phrase “In God We Trust” despite the fact that the Congress passed the Act on March 3, 1865, authorizing the use of this expression on our coins during Lincoln's tenure of office. William Taft succeeded Roosevelt as president before the penny went into production and refused to approve the design without it.
Even though no legislation was required for a new design, approval of the Treasury Secretary was necessary to make the change. Franklin MacVeagh gave his approval July 14, 1909 and it was announced to the public that a new one-cent coin would be available in the middle of the year to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. About three weeks later, on August 2nd, 1909, the new cent was released to the public with much controversy which will be covered in Part II