The lowly penny and the nation’s most honored president

Steel pennies, which collectors sometimes refer to as “steelies,” were struck in 1943 because of a supply shortage of copper during WWII.

Story by Bryon Ennis
People who collect or are interested in coins and currency are called numismatists. I am not a numismatist, and that is perhaps why I find the occasional discovery of an old penny so surprising and rewarding. Occasionally, I have discovered old pennies during the mundane process of making a purchase. This is one of the lesser known benefits of paying with cash. Recently, I found a “wheat penny” among the change I received after buying an ice cream. For those young enough not to be familiar with wheat pennies, this design preceded the image of the Lincoln Memorial or the more recent Union Shield on the reverse side of our current pennies.
When I notice a rare penny like this in my change, I flip it into a little dish on my dresser and usually forget about it. But after this recent find of a 1949 wheat penny, I decided to count how many I had accumulated in just the last few years. There were six, and one was a 1943 steel wheat penny, even rarer than the copper wheat pennies. Now, as I said, I don’t intentionally search for rare coins, so I was particularly delighted to find a penny, by sheer luck, whose design had been discontinued nearly years earlier.
As I casually scan the coins I receive as change, I find that I can easily recognize historic imprints. I then examine more closely the uncommon coin’s minting date, which is usually 50 years old or more. Since I am somewhat of a history buff, those dates often trigger memories of events in my life or eras in the history of our country. Indian Head pennies, which preceded the Lincoln/wheat pennies, were last minted in 1909, but there were still some in common circulation as late as the 1950’s when I was a youngster. The Indian Head penny (1859-1909) did not, in fact, depict a Native American in full headdress but instead is said to have been the head of the imaginary “Lady Liberty” adorned with feathers. This was in keeping with the once hallowed practice of not depicting an actual person on any U.S. coin. Why? Perhaps any human was considered too imperfect to grace our currency. Another possibility is that the image of a leader on our coins was considered too similar to the practice common under European monarchs.
As a youngster, I am quite certain I had no idea when the mint ceased to make Indian Head cents, but the rare appearance of this coin in my life inspired me to imagine our country when this imprint had been the current design. There were lots of popular TV shows then depicting Indians, unfaithfully as I was to learn, but they did help me conjure a time that came before me. There were other elements of my childhood that also reminded me that everything was not recent and modern. Even though I grew up within sight of the iconic Manhattan skyline, every month or so, a rag collector still drove his horse and wagon through my suburban neighborhood shouting, “raaaags” with a drawn-out “a” that sounded like the a in age.
I also remember seeing a penny at our local museum through which Annie Oakley had reportedly shot a hole while it was still airborne. This small museum owned the unusual artifact because rural Nutley, New Jersey, was only six miles from New York City and was a convenient residence for Annie during the late 1880’s when she performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. I remember as a child wondering why this penny was so unusually large.
I have since learned that the first Indian Head pennies were about the size of our current half dollar and made of copper. This followed a practice, when our nation was still young, of coins containing the value in metal that the coin represented. So, a one cent coin needed to contain $0.01 worth of copper. But as the population of the nation grew along with the value of copper, it became impossible for the Mint to continue to strike pennies so large; thus, a coin about the size of our current penny was introduced in 1857, which was 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel. Much of the copper used to mint Indian Head pennies came from the Upper Peninsula in those early days; in fact, the 1869 Indian Head coin could be regarded as a commemoration of the copper miners of the U.P. because 95 percent of the copper used in U.S. pennies that year came from the “Copper Country.”
By the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, our nation’s leaders believed that enough had changed about the United States since the advent of the Indian Head cent in 1859 that a new design was needed. The centennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was approaching in 1909, and for at least the northern half of the country, he was now the most beloved of our past presidents, especially as the passage of years had dimmed the nearly deified memories of George Washington. But another factor had arisen to make people want to reassert the memories of Lincoln. Since the end of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, white supremacy had not only been rekindled, it had fairly taken hold. The Ku Klux Klan had become a powerful force in the South and was making its way well into northern cities. New monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate war figures were being erected throughout the South. Something was needed to remind all U.S. citizens that the Union had been victorious, and Lincoln had been its leader.
In 1909, a major change was made to the images on United States coins. For the first time, the Indian Head or Lady Liberty on the front was replaced by a portrait of an actual historic figure, Abraham Lincoln. On the reverse side, the design was changed from a stodgy old oak leaf wreath to the curved stalks of Durham wheat depicting modern U.S. agriculture. Our government correctly anticipated the nation’s desire for the redesigned penny. Long before it was publicly known which coin Lincoln’s profile might grace, souvenir vendors had been selling thousands of mementos bearing Lincoln’s image.
Once the new coins had been minted, they were held in strict secrecy until the day of issue. Finally, on August 2, 1909, the first Lincoln coins were released into circulation. A mad dash ensued, and all available pieces were quickly scooped up by private citizens and taken out of circulation, causing an immediate shortage of pennies.
The one cent coin with a portrait of Lincoln on the front and wheat stalks on the reverse side remained nearly constant for the next fifty years. At first, there was a minor dust-up about the designer’s initials, VDB (Victor David Brenner), being too prominent. Subsequently, they were made smaller and placed on Lincoln’s shoulder in 1918. During World War II, while the need for copper was crucial to the war effort, the Mint made pennies of steel in 1943, but there arose such a clamor from the public because the new shiny steel pennies were often confused with dimes. Also vending machine owners were finding their machines were mistaking the steel pennies for slugs. By 1944, war or no war, the Mint had heard enough complaints and returned to the copper penny.
In 1959, to recognize the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and appease critics who felt it was again time to modernize the penny’s design, a change was ordered. Though the front would still carry the same portrait of Lincoln, the wheat stalks on the reverse side would give way to an image of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
While many other nations, including Canada, have discontinued the use of pennies with little resistance, the U.S. has issued several new designs for the Lincoln cents. Though the front side still carries the same portrait of Lincoln, the reverse sides of four new pennies released in 2009 depict stages of Lincoln’s life. The first, released on February 12, shows the Lincoln log cabin, depicting his birth in Hodgenville, Kentucky. The second, released on May 14, shows Lincoln’s formative years as a young rail splitter in Indiana. The third penny, released August 13, depicts Abraham Lincoln speaking in front of the State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois, during his service in the Illinois legislature. The fourth, released November 12, shows a partially finished U.S. Capitol Building, representing his presidency.
In 2010, after all four of the pennies depicting stages of Lincoln’s life were issued, the reverse side of the Lincoln cent was again changed to carry the image of the Union Shield. It is evident that the United States intends to keep the cent coin for the foreseeable future. Though the coin is now 97 percent zinc and only 3 percent copper in order to control the costs of minting billions of pieces, each penny still costs 1.8 cents to produce. What is less clear, due to ongoing disputes over the display of confederate symbols in our country, is how citizens of our southern states might regard a U. S. coin with President Lincoln on one side and the Union Shield on the other.

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