Lincoln Head Penny
Countless coin collectors got their start with Lincoln cents. It’s pretty logical when you think about it. Pennies hang around your spare change accumulation longer--- how many of us bother trying to spend them? So there’s more opportunity to look closely at them. Also, the “old” ones leap out at you by virtue of their distinctive ‘wheat-ear’ reverse design. But most of all, you have a LOT better chance of picking up a really old Lincoln cent in change than any other coin. You’ll almost never find a pre-1965 quarter in change. The same can be said for the dimes. Every now and then, you’ll come across a nickel from the 1940’s or 1950’s. But with Lincoln pennies, it’s not uncommon at all to find one from the 1940’s, and with enough looking, you might even find one from the teens and twenties!
The Lincoln cent has been with us much longer than any other current circulating coin. In fact, in just three years, the Lincoln cent will be celebrating its 100th year of existence! And despite the turmoil of two World Wars, a Great Depression, drastically-changed metal compositions, and constant calls (especially over the last 30 years) for an end to the one-cent coin, the Lincoln cent has been struck in each and every one of its 98 years.
The year was 1909. Theodore Roosevelt was the U.S. President of a nation with 46 states. A woman could be arrested for smoking in public. There were only 10 miles of paved roads. There were more lynchings than automobile fatalities. The average worker made about $13 a week, and the life expectancy for a man was slightly over 46 years, 47 for a woman. When Americans talked about the “last war,” they were referring to the Spanish-American War. Into this landscape entered a brand-new one-cent coin. At the beginning of 1909, there were still Indian Head cents being struck, but later, a new cent was introduced: the Lincoln cent.
The obverse of the new 1909 Lincoln cent looks basically like the obverse of the Lincoln cent today, with some minor facial and hair variations. The reverse, however, was a simple design showing two wheat ears flanking the words, “ONE CENT” within them. In that first year of 1909, the new Lincoln cent was struck at the Philadelphia and the San Francisco mints, as the Denver mint had not yet begun operations. The 1909 Lincoln cent shared space in commerce with the Liberty Head nickel, the Barber dime, Barber Quarter, Barber Half dollar and Morgan dollar (though the Morgan dollar was taking a breather from 1905-1920).
Although the Lincoln cent has only undergone one major design change since 1909 (the wheat-ear reverse design of 1909-58 was changed to the Lincoln memorial design in 1959), there have been a few composition changes over the years. From 1909 to 1942, the Lincoln cent was struck in bronze. Due to the U.S. being embroiled in World War II, the 1943 cent was made of zinc-coated steel, giving it a peculiar-looking blue appearance. In 1944, the “brown” Lincoln cent returned, but now it was actually made of copper-zinc. The copper-zinc composition lasted until 1982 when it was changed to copper plated zinc. With the cent now more zinc than copper, Lincoln cents from 1982 to present are known for their rapid and horrific rate of decomposition. Whether this will translate for really high prices for mint-state Lincoln cents struck after 1982, remains to be seen.
There are actually SIX different types of cents you can collect from the year 1909 – the 1909 Indian Head cent (struck at Philadelphia, but no mintmark), the 1909-S Indian Head cent, the 1909 VDB Lincoln cent, the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, the 1909 Lincoln cent and the 1909-S Lincoln Cent! As this is an article on Lincoln cents, we’ll concentrate on the four different 1909 Lincoln cents. The 1909 Philadelphia (no mintmark) is the easiest to obtain and also the cheapest. But what’s a 1909 VDB? That’s a 1909 Lincoln cent struck at the Philadelphia mint that ALSO has the initials of the Lincoln cent design, Victor David Brenner, in a tiny space at the bottom of the reverse. These “VDB” cents were the first ones struck, but were short-lived. Later in 1909, the “VDB” was removed from that tiny spot on the reverse, but restored again in 1918 to the obverse. The 1909 VDB cent is a popular coin, but was struck in large numbers and saved in large numbers. Consequently, it’s not that expensive to own and is a huge bargain retailing at around just $10 in near mint-state condition.
It’s the San Francisco mint cents of 1909 that are somewhat scarce and pretty expensive to acquire. Their mintages were relatively small, but not miniscule. There were 484,000 1909-S Lincoln cents struck WITH the VDB, and 1.8 million 1909-S Lincoln cents struck WITHOUT the VDB. Both coins are highly sought-after by numerous Lincoln cent collectors who need them to complete their Lincoln cent collection by date and mintmark. And there are MANY Lincoln cent collectors out there who collect by date and mintmark. In fact, of all U.S. coins ever struck, it is the Lincoln cent that probably has the most devoted following of those who collect by date and mintmark. But back to the 1909 S-mint coins--- even with a mintage of 1.8 million, the 1909-S commands $95 in Fine condition, while the 1909-S VDB commands a whopping $750 in GOOD and $850 in FINE! In fact, the 1909-S VDB is easily the key coin of the entire Lincoln cent series, and is always one of the first coins mentioned whenever the subject of “key-date” U.S. coins comes up.
Still, the 1909-S VDB is neither the rarest, NOR the most valuable Lincoln cent. That honor goes to the 1943 Lincoln cent. Now before you get all excited and say, ‘Hey! I own a FEW 1943 cents!’, understand that we’re not talking about those peculiar-looking blue Lincoln cents made of zinc-coated steel. We’re talking about the handful of 1943 Lincoln cents struck in pure copper. In the early 1970’s, there were magazine and comic book ads that trumpeted, “We’ll pay you $10,000 (or some ridiculously high amount) for a 1943 penny!” Naturally these coin companies were bombarded with letters and calls from people who did indeed have a 1943 penny—sometimes, BUNCHES of them! Of course they didn’t have the copper 1943 cents. The same misunderstanding still takes place today. But if you DO happen to have a copper 1943 cent, then A. get it authenticated because B. you probably DON’T have a copper 1943 cent!
Other key and semi-key dates are as follows:
A better-grade Lincoln cent -- particularly the older ones —will show a sharply defined cheek bone and intact hair and beard detail. On the wheat-ear reverses, the wheat ears will not be worn flat, but instead, will show detail in the wheat ears. Uncirculated examples need not be bright-blazing orange (as you see new ones come from the mint) but often can tone down to an attractive reddish-brown hue, sometimes to completely brown. Still, there will be a soft hint of luster underneath, and, of course, all intricate detail will be intact.
Oftentimes it’s MORE desirable to have a Lincoln cent that’s developed a brown or reddish-brown tone over the years, as opposed to maintaining its just-come-from-the-mint orange color and blazing luster. The latter coins are easy targets for “spotting,” if stored improperly in a humid enviroment. Even WHEN properly stored, spotting can occur on such coins and lower the value. This is one reason why investors often shy away from super high-grade Lincoln cents.
We can only wonder if values for older Lincoln cents will rise across the board as we approach the 100th anniversary year of the Lincoln cent. Even as we do so, the cries to abandon the cent altogether are growing louder—especially after recent news that it now costs MORE than one-cent to MAKE one-cent! If the cent is abolished, the Lincoln cent’s popularity could skyrocket even more.