Small Cents – Lincoln Cent, Bronze, Wheat Ears Reverse, 1909-1958

The Lincoln cent has been a favorite of collectors for many years. Part of the appeal lies in the fact that it is the first circulating U.S. coin to feature a likeness of a real person; who just happens to be one of the most respected and admired presidents in this country’s history. The Lincoln cent was also issued on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Another attraction is that with few exceptions millions of the denomination were issued each year, and combined with its low face value, it is a type that nearly everyone is able to collect, including youngsters and other of modest means. On the other hand, the series contains enough rarities and varieties to hold the interest of the serious numismatist. And, the Lincoln cent is perhaps one of the few coin types whose rarities have become well-known even by those who are not collectors. Many who wouldn’t know the difference between Draped Bust and Capped Bust types (and more to the point, probably don’t care) nevertheless have probably heard of the 1909-S VDB and the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse ‘pennies’, and perhaps even the 1943 copper cent and the 1960 Large Date and Small date varieties.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The first year of the design includes the issues that prominently display on the reverse the initials of the designer, Victor D. Brenner, something that caused controversy at the time of release, even though designers initials had previously been placed on U.S. coins. Because those initials were subsequently removed (and then reinstated in a less conspicuous location on the obverse in 1918), the 1909 V.D.B. and 1909-S V.D.B. cents are considered a separate type.

Lincoln cents were made of bronze most years, with a couple of variations during the years of World War II. Because copper was a critical war material, cents in 1943 were produced on zinc-coated steel planchets. That event resulted in the inadvertent creation of two Lincoln cent rarities, the first the copper cents dated 1943, the second the steel cents dated 1944. From 1944 through 1946 cents were produced from reused shell cases, whose bronze composition was nearly identical to the original issues, minus the tin.

Both WWI and WWII affected the production of cent proofs. Those struck from 1909 through 1916 have a matte or satin finish, but production ended near the start of WWI. When production resumed in 1936, both satin and brilliant finish proof cents were minted, but thereafter proofs were brilliant finish only, until production ended again with the 1942 issue. No cent proofs were made during and immediately after the WWII years, from 1943 through 1949. Millions of business strike Wheat Lincoln cents were produced almost every year, useful in commerce at the time (and for entertainment in the often colorfully-named penny arcades), but today often relegated to “help yourself if needed” cent boxes near business cash registers. Collector interest in the type grew more slowly, not taking off until the low-mintage 1931-S was extensively publicized, along with the advent of collecting boards in the early 1930s. Though some today question the utility of a denomination that has been minted yearly since 1793 (except for 1815), the year 2009 marks the issuance of several new designs commemorating Lincoln’s 200th birth anniversary, and the 100th year of the Lincoln cent.

A right-facing Lincoln occupies most of the obverse. At the top, inside a raised rim and above Lincoln’s head is IN GOD WE TRUST, the first appearance of that motto on the cent. To the left of the portrait is LIBERTY, and to the right and slightly lower, the date. Lincoln Wheat cents were minted at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco; D and S mintmarks appear below the date. Cents produced for 1918 and subsequent years have the designer’s initials VDB on the bottom bevel of Lincoln’s shoulder. The reverse has a prominent display of the denomination ONE CENT at the top center, each word on a separate line, and below that UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in two lines. E PLURIBUS UNUM, with a center dot between the words, arcs along the top inside a raised rim. To both the left and the right of the center text, and curved to follow the rim, are stylized images of the seed head of wheat, called Wheat Ears by many, and the source for the type name.

Tens of thousands of business strike Lincoln Wheat cents are listed in census/ population reports, categorized by color definition (BN, RB, and RD, for Brown, Red-Brown, and Red), with many in grades of MS60 and finer. Prices are modest for most issues up to and including Premium Gem, and for some dates to Superb Gem. Coins with the Red-Brown or Red designations command significant premiums for cents produced through the mid-1930s, with Red cents often very expensive or extremely expensive. From the mid-1930s forward, most certified Wheat cents have been classified as Red. Higher priced issues include 1914-D, 1917 Doubled-Die Obverse, 1922 No D, 1936 Doubled-Die Obverse, 1955 Doubled-Die obverse, 1958 Doubled-Die Obverse, and many pre-1936 Red-designated cents graded MS65 and finer. Thousands of proof Wheat cents have been certified, many as Cameo and Deep Cameo, though fewer with the 1936 and earlier Matte or Satin finish. Prices are modest for most issues even as Superb Gem, though Red and Deep Cameo coins are often very expensive. Proofs minted in 1936 and earlier are generally more expensive than those produced after 1936.

Designer: Victor D. Brenner
Circulation Mintage: high 1,435,400,000 (1944), low 866,000 (1931-S)
Proof Mintage: high 1,247,952 (1957), low 600 (1916)
Denomination: One cent (01/100)
Diameter: 19 mm; plain edge
Metal Content: 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc 1909-1942 and 1947-1958; steel, coated with zinc 1943; 95% copper, 5% zinc 1944-1946
Weight: 3.11 grams 1909-1942 and 1944-1958; 2.70 grams 1943
Varieties: Many known including 1909-S, S Over Horizontal S; 1917 Doubled-Die Obverse; 1922 No D and Weak D (from either a filled die or excessively polished die; Philadelphia did not produce cents in 1922); 1936 Doubled-Die Obverse; 1943 bronze and 1944 steel; 1944-D, D Over S; 1946-S, S Over D; 1955 Doubled-Die Obverse; 1956-D, D Above Shadow D; 1958 Doubled-Die Obverse; and other die doubling, over punches, and minor die variations.

Additional Resources:
Coin Encyclopedia:
The Complete Guide to Certified Barber Coinage. David Lawrence Feigenbaum and John Feigenbaum. DLRC Press.
The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents. David W. Lange. Zyrus Press
A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing.
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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