It was 1905. American coins had been sporting the same designs for over 50 years, and President Roosevelt decided that it was time for a change. He wanted our nation to have coins comparable to those of the ancient Greeks.
Roosevelt initiated this effort by contacting sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coinage, resulting in the world-famous Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, as well as the 1907 Indian $10. Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, before he could design more coins, so the president had to find someone else to design a coin for the upcoming centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
Roosevelt chose Victor David Brenner, an American sculptor, engraver, and numismatist. Brenner was a founder of the New York Numismatic Club, and had garnered a reputation producing medals, which were a popular collector’s item at the time.
In 1907, Brenner produced a medal of Lincoln, and a year later, discussed with Roosevelt the idea of using the design for a coin. The Indian Head cent had been in use since 1859 and was ripe for a change. Brenner worked on the Lincoln head for over a year, and on August 2, 1909, the Lincoln cent was circulated for the first time.
The new cent was immediately popular. In Philadelphia, the demand was so high that availability was limited for individual purchasers. Some enterprising resellers bought the pennies by the hundreds and resold them for 2 to 12 times their values. The magazine The Numismatist waxed rhapsodic:
“It is our first portrait coin; [the Lincoln Cent] bears the head of the man who, for his great heart, is greatest in the hearts of Americans; it was designed by America’s greatest sculptor-artist, ANA member Victor D. Brenner, and it was proposed by the popular citizen, Theodore Roosevelt.”
And Then the Controversy
But a cloud of controversy soon descended upon the Lincoln cent. Unnoticed in the pre-release publicity was the fact of Brenner’s initials, VDB, on the reverse of the coin. In an earlier model, Brenner’s last name appeared in full on the coin, but this was seen as too prominent and changed to his initials.
To the public and the media, however, even this was too much. Some felt that the letters were simply too prominent, and others felt that since Brenner had been paid for his work, he didn’t need recognition. Others saw the initials as unfair free advertising for Brenner. In fact, credit to the artist is a tradition that goes back centuries in numismatics, including on the ancient Greek coinage that first inspired the American coin renaissance. J.B.L., for the engraver James B. Longacre, appeared on most of America’s gold coins for decades and through 1908.
Some also disliked the wheat stalks on the reverse, because they weren’t a true-life portrait of the grain. Others pointed out that many Southerners weren’t exactly partial to Lincoln and didn’t appreciate his visage on a coin.
The Mint decided within days to eliminate the initials and began production of the Lincoln cent without them. Brenner threatened to sue (he later changed his mind), and the American Numismatic Association supported Brenner and the appearance of his initials. Nevertheless, the initials were removed and only appeared on the coin in 1909. 27,995,000 1909 VDB Lincoln cents were issued, but only 484,000 (1.7%) of those were struck at the San Francisco Mint.
Many predicted that VDB-S Lincoln cents would thus become a rare collector’s item, and they were correct. 1909-S VDB pennies commanded a premium in 1909, and today they are one of the most sought-after and popular coins in American numismatics. Many a Lincoln penny collector has sought for years to add a 1909-S VDB to their collection.
1909 Historical Events Timeline
January – The Nimrod Expedition Reaches the Magnetic South Pole
By reaching the Magnetic Pole, a party from the Nimrod Expedition achieves one of the major goals of the expedition. On January 17, 1909, they plant the Union Jack at the pole and claim the area for the British Empire. The expedition breaks a record for reaching farthest south, a record that holds until Roald Amundsen reaches the South Pole two years later.
March – President Taft Is Inaugurated
On March 4, 1909, William Howard Taft is inaugurated during a 10” blizzard that blankets Washington, D.C. with ice. The inauguration is thus moved indoors and conducted in the Senate. The inaugural parade, however, proceeds, and city workers use 500 wagons to remove 58,000 tons of snow from the parade route.
May – The First NAACP Conference Is Held
On May 31, 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People holds its first conference in New York City. Among the speakers is author WEB DuBois. The NAACP’s goals are the abolition of segregation, discrimination, racial violence, and disenfranchisement.
June – The First U.S. Airplane Is Sold Commercially
On June 16, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss sells his Golden Flyer to the New York Aeronautical Society. This triggers a lawsuit from the Wright Brothers, marking the start of what would be called “The Patent Wars” of early aviation.
NGC-Certified 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cents Currently Available on eBay
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