Over 100 Years of the Lincoln Penny


In 1909 the United States was introduced to the Abraham Lincoln penny. An instant favorite, it’s endured for over a hundred years with design and metallurgic changes.

The year 2009 represents the 100th anniversary of the issuance of the Lincoln penny. It also represents the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In the century since it was first introduced the coin has been modified several times, both in graphic design and metallic composition.

The Original Lincoln Penny

Using portraits on United States coinage was almost universally opposed in 1909. That is until the celebration of the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The sentiment was strong enough to change this policy.

Victor David Brenner sculpted the design of the obverse (head) side of the penny. His initials appeared on the coin and then were removed and returned again so every penny from 1918 to the present bears his initials (extremely small) on the rim just below the shoulder.

It was the first time the motto “In God We Trust” was used on a penny. The use of this motto on U.S. coins was passed by Congress in March, 1865, during Lincoln’s presidency.

The original design for the reverse side (tails) was a simple pair of wheatheads. Later collectors would refer to these as “wheat lines” or “wheaties.”

World War II

At the beginning of World War II, the composition of Lincoln pennies was 95% copper and 5% zinc. These metals were in short supply during the war and therefore the mint was not allowed to use them. The mint had to come up with a suitable replacement material.

After considering a variety of materials, including plastics, it was decided the one-cent coin would be composed of a low-grade carbon steel with a thin layer of zinc electrolytically deposited to deter rust.

By the end of 1943, the Mint had produced nearly 1.1 billion of these steel pennies.

According to the United States Treasury, “The copper released for the war effort was enough to meet the combined needs of 2 cruisers, 2 destroyers, 1,243 flying fortresses, 120 field guns and 120 howitzers, or enough for 1.25 million shells for our big field guns.”

The coins were slightly lighter than the copper based coins.

Beginning in 1944, the mint was able to use melted down expended shell casings which were closer to the original but with a trace of tin.

The Sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s Birth

For the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, it was decided to change the reverse design. This time Frank Gasparo, an assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint at this time, submitted a design with the main focus on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Gasparo’s initials also appear on the right, near the shrubbery. E Pluribus Unum, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, and the denomination appears.

Metal Composition Changes Continue

In 1962 the Mint decided that a return to the 95% copper, 5% zinc composition would be fine and wouldn’t hurt. Authority for this change was contained in an Act of Congress passed in September, 1962. The coin retained the same makeup until 1982 when it was changed to 97.6% zinc and 2.4 copper plating. The design and size remained unchanged during this time.

Lincoln’s Bicentennial Celebrated with Four New Reverse Designs

It was determined that for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, four new reverse sides would be issued in 2009. Each would represent a different stage in the development of the man who would become the President of the United States.

Birth and Early Childhood in Kentucky features a log cabin that emphasizes the humble beginnings of young Abraham Lincoln.

Formative Years in Indiana depicts Lincoln’s desire for learning as he sits reading a book while working as a rail splitter.

Professional Life in Illinois shows Lincoln standing in the foreground and the state capital in the background.

Presidency in Washington, D.C. is represented by an image of the half finished capitol dome as it was during his presidency.

After the Lincoln Bicentennial another change was made to the Lincoln penny. Again it was on the reverse of the coin. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is viewed through what appears to be a shield-shaped window.

Periodically the issue is raised concerning the possibility of eliminating the one cent coin entirely. Two bills have been introduced in Congress that want to end production of the penny. Neither bill was approved. If it would succeed that would leave the nickel (5-cent piece) as the lowest denomination of U.S. coinage. There are a wide variety of reasons for and against such a change. The Lincoln penny has made it through one hundred years. The question now is: “Will it survive another one hundred years or might it disappear within the decade?”