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US Coins – The Lincoln Cent’s First Fifty Years

By Kathleen DuncanPinnacle Rarities ……
President Teddy Roosevelt influenced changes in all United States’ coin designs between 1907-1921. He became acquainted in 1908 with Victor David Brenner when Brenner was commissioned to do his portrait for the Panama Canal Service Medal. As the Centennial of Lincoln’s birth was approaching, Brenner had recently completed a plaque featuring a bust of the beloved former President.

Artwork By Chuck Daughtrey
Artwork By Chuck Daughtrey

Thus the idea for the Lincoln cent was born, and the designer chosen. Brenner’s obverse displays Lincoln’s portrait facing right, with the inscription LIBERTY on the left and the date on the right. For the first time on a cent, the motto IN GOD WE TRUST appears along the upper obverse rim. Two sheaves of wheat frame inscriptions E PLURIBUS UNUM, ONE CENT and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. While the obverse design continues to this day, the reverse was altered in 1959 on the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth to feature the Lincoln Memorial.

Mintages from the onset were substantial, with Philadelphia being the main producer but Denver and San Francisco contributing in most years. Philadelphia produced more than 100 million cents in 1909 and by 1941 output topped 1 billion. Matte-proof Lincoln cents were produced in Philly from 1909 until 1916, and brilliant proofs were struck from 1936 until 1942, again from 1950 until 1964, and annually since 1968.

This is often the very first U.S. coin series collectors pursue due to relative affordability, and many return to it when finances are more discretionary later in life. Several alluring issues are present among this design run, which features not only the most valuable error but also the most dramatic double die in all of numismatics. When collecting, a premium is placed on coins displaying original mint red color. Red status is reserved for those deemed to have 85% or more mint red. A Brown cent is defined as having less than 15% red remaining and a Red-Brown shows 15%-85% of its original mint color.


1909-S VDB
While most U.S. coins display the monogram of the designer, the V.D.B. at the base of the reverse proved unpopular, particularly to Chief Engraver Charles Barber. As a simple B wouldn’t suffice (as Barber’s name also began with the letter), Brenner’s initials were removed entirely. Not until 1918, after the death of Charles Barber, were they restored at the base of Lincoln’s bust, in much smaller letters, where they remain until this day. A mere 484,000 cents were minted in San Francisco displaying V.D.B., hence the most famous coin in the series was born. The only other Lincoln cent with a production of under a million is the Depression-era 1931-S, with a mintage of 866,000.


This issue has the smallest surviving population in all grades, and subsequently is one of the most coveted and valuable dates in the entire series. As such, it is frequently counterfeited, by the addition of a D mintmark on a Philly coin, or shaving the first 4 in the date of a 1944-D coin down. Both fakes can be easily detected: The D mintmark on 1914-D cents was not used after 1931. The cents coined in Denver between 1911 and early 1917 used a very small mintmark. A slightly larger, differently shaped version took its place later in 1917 and remained in use until 1932. 1944 cents have the designer’s initials V.D.B. on the truncation of Lincoln’s bust, while those prior to 1918 do not.

1917 Double Die Obverse
Finally discovered in 1977, after going unnoticed for 60 years, the obverse shows substantial doubling in the word TRUST and the date, particularly on the 7. It is elusive in all grades. Gem examples are worth approximately $20,000, but all uncirculated coins are worth several thousand dollars.


Although not a rare date in general, this issue is tied for third rarest in full red, gem condition. PCGS has graded only 10 examples in MS65RD and nothing finer, despite a mintage of 46 million that year. Part of the problem originated with the practice of the Mint at the time of using reverse dies in multiple years, even after their details had eroded. Many San Francisco issues, particularly from 1912 until 1927, prove elusive in high grade, uncirculated condition for this reason. The last PCGS MS65RD brought $44,063 in auction last year.

1922 No D
The nationwide Depression in 1920-22 reduced demand for us coins and cents to the point where only the Denver Mint struck the denomination in 1922. At some point, excessive polishing to remove clashing on heavily worn dies also removed the D mintmark. Examples always have a very weakly detailed obverse in other areas as well. While in most years the resulting coins would have been mistook for Philadelphia strikings, no cents were produced there in 1922. This is actually a die state, and not a true variety or error, but early promotion has made it an intensely sought after issue regardless. Full Red examples are nearly nonexistent with only two in all grades between NGC and PCGS.


The 1924-S holds second place honors for rarity in full red, gem condition. Examples are notoriously poorly struck from seriously eroded dies. PCGS has certified a mere 8 examples at that level and NGC only a single coin, with nothing higher. This number hasn’t changed in at least 9 years, when the last PCGS MS65RD crossed the auction block in 2005 for $43,125.

This issue is tied with the 1920-S for third place honors on rarity in full-red gem, although lesser-graded examples are only scarce and not rare. As with many San Francisco issues from this era, the dies were used for far too long, resulting in poor striking characteristics. Although no gem examples have traded publicly in almost five years, the last two PCGS MS65RDs only brought $18,400, a price substantially below the comparably elusive 1920-S.

For reasons unknown, the San Francisco Mint registered low mintages for most denominations in 1926. Like the 1926-S Buffalo nickels, this issue is the rarest in the series in gem condition and fittingly holds the auction record for a non-error variety ($149,500 in 2006). Only a single PCGS MS65RD along with a single NGC MS65RD appear on the population reports, with nothing graded higher. The typical 1926-S displays poor details from moderately to heavily worn dies on one or both sides.

1936 Double Die Obverse
There are three different double die types for this year and mintmark, with the Type 1 being by far the most dramatic and popular. It is difficult to locate in any condition with only about 150 examples graded in total by PCGS and NGC. Surprisingly, it trades at a fraction of the price of the more popular 1917 Double Die, although both are comparably rare and the doubling on the 1936 is more dramatic.

1943 Bronze and 1944 Steel
With the United States fighting fronts in both Japan and Europe, the government needed copper and tin to make munitions. So, in 1942 the Mint took all but a trace of tin out of the cent alloy, changing it 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. By 1943, copper was removed completely and replaced by steel coated with zinc. Unfortunately, this new steel cent was often confused with the dime. It was also refused by vending machines and the zinc coating wore off easily, causing the coins to rust. Not surprisingly, their production ended quickly. Brass was again put to use in 1944, and the original bronze alloy composition resumed in 1947. The one-year failed experiment, however, resulted in the most valuable coins in the series: a tiny number of 1943 cents in bronze and a slightly greater number of 1944 cents in steel are extreme rarities and the most valuable error coins of all time.

Bronze planchets made it into the hoppers at all three Mints and were struck and released into circulation. It is assumed the errors were created when a few stray planchets leftover from 1942 were lodged within presses and worked their way loose in the following year. Fewer than a dozen Philly coins are believed to exist along with 4-6 San Francisco specimens and what is currently a unique Denver Bronze 1943. As these have become popularly counterfeited, one can test authenticity by finding out if the penny sticks to a magnet. If it sticks, it’s not copper.

A 1943-S graded PCGS MS62BN purportedly sold to a prominent Texas Collector in 2012 for $1 million. The unique Denver example graded PCGS MS64BN was purchased by the same collector in 2010 for $1.7 million. This same coin sold in 2003 for a mere $212,750 in auction, ratcheting up 800% in value in a mere 7 years!

Slightly less rare, but still a monumental rarity, is the 1944 Steel Cent. 27 examples are confirmed as genuine from Philadelphia. 7 are estimated to exist from Denver and only one or two from San Francisco. Leftover planchets from 1943 may have been wedged in the presses and gotten loose the following year, as is assumed to have happened with the Bronze 1943. The possibility also exists, however, that the blanks from Philly were meant for the 1944 Belgian 2-Francs coin. The U.S. Mint was under contract to produce 2-Francs pieces for Belgium that year from the leftover stock of steel Lincoln cent planchets.

1955 Doubled Die Obverse
This remarkable minting error, the most famous double die of the 20th century, was the result of a change in the positioning of the hub with respect to the die after the die had already received at least one impression. The date, motto and LIBERTY all display dramatic doubling, apparent to the naked eye. This ordinarily would have resulted in the obverse die being rejected from use, but mint workers failed to notice the error until several thousand coins had been produced. Due to the great publicity the error received, more people than ever began taking an interest in coin collecting. Any uncirculated example is worth at least a couple thousand dollars and MS65RD examples have traded in excess of $30,000.

It is thought that the increasingly curved fields of the designs of the era may have been difficult to polish uniformly on the dies, leading the Mint to produce matte finish rather than brilliant proofs between 1907 and 1916. From 1909 until 1916, Matte Proof Lincoln Cents were produced, although few collectors were pleased with their somewhat dull appearance. Just over a thousand proofs were produced in 1915 and 1916, and between 1917 and 1936 collectors went entirely without proof coinage in any denomination.

When proof Lincoln Cent production resumed in 1936, the more popular brilliant style was resumed. Those produced in early 1936, however, displayed a satin finish that still proved unpopular with collectors. Later in 1936, a more traditional, brilliant style was brought back, resulting in two distinct 1936 proof types. Although the surfaces of the 1936-42 proofs indeed display highly mirrored surfaces, finding examples with any amount of cameo contrast is exceptionally rare. As labor and materials became scarce during World War II, proofs were once again discontinued after 1942. When they were brought back in 1950, they finally possessed a strong cameo appearance, with frosted relief elements contrasting with well-mirrored fields.

The Lincoln cent has been issued longer than any other US Coin design and in far greater numbers than any coin in the history of the world. Since it’s beginning in 1909, it has endured to this day with the same obverse, honoring our beloved 16th president. It was also the first circulating coin to portray a President’s likeness. Many collectors begin their numismatic journey assembling sets of this interesting, historically rich series. Only the most well-heeled complete a collection that includes each of the rarities and errors mentioned herein. Numismatists of all levels, however, can pursue this fun and fascinating series, as the collecting strategies are seemingly endless.

This article was previously printed November 14, 2014 in the Monthly Supplement of the Coin Dealer Newsletter Vol. XXXIX No. 11.  CDN is an industry newsletter reporting the national dealer-to-dealer, wholesale coin market. To obtain copies of this article or for information about the publication contact CDN at [email protected].  Pinnacle also has a few copies still available.

Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

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  1. This is a fascinating article. Are there any current collectors who DIDN’T get their start by amassing a set of Lincoln “pennies”?! It’s just a shame young collectors can’t have the same thrill of finding “wheaties” in change the way as those of us who started back in the 1960s and ’70s.

    Being a former teacher, two grammatical goofs caught my eye: “would have been mistook” should of course be “would have been MISTAKEN”, and the ever-popular misuse of “it’s” as a possessive should be ITS.

  2. I have many error Lincoln cents. The one i like the most is the floating memorial roof. Missing last number in dates. Why are these coins not considered rare or not even mentioned when speaking of unique type lincoln cents. I cant believe i have the only ones. I have a lincoln cent that In God We Trust is cut in half with the coins rim.

  3. Has anyone ever heard of a 1909 s vdb that is double struck? If so, what kind of price could this go for at a big coin auction?


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