Collecting the Lincoln Cent; It's not just a Child's Game Anymore

Collecting the Lincoln Cent; It's not just a Child's Game Anymore
Remember when you first started collecting coins? If you were anything like me, you probably first started with the pennies, the Lincoln Cents to be more precise. My grandfather gave me one of those Penny Books. You know the kind the album; it had the holes in it with the date with the mint mark printed below each hole. Each week I would faithfully take my allowance of 50¢ down to the bank and trade it in for a roll of pennies then run home to sort through them looking for that special coin to fill a hole. Sometimes it was fruitful and I’d fill a couple of holes and sometimes not. Who knew the Lincoln Cent could end up to be a life long study of changes, varieties and anomalies?

Designed by Victor David Brenner at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Lincoln Cent went into circulation on August 2, 1909. Appearing on the reverse of the coin at the 6 o’clock position were his initials, “V.D.B.” Almost immediately, Brenner was attacked in the press for the use of his initials. What was he to do, sign his full name on the obverse? That was a part of his original design, and Mint Director Leach turned it down. The use of the single initial “B” for Brenner was also out because it was the moniker for the mint’s chief engraver Charles E. Barber. It was decided after almost 28 million coins from the Philadelphia Mint, 1,194 Matte Proofs, and 484,000 coins from the San Francisco Mint were released that the initials be removed. The reappearance of the “VDB”, on the obverse of the cent, in 1918, coincided within a few months of the death of Charles Barber.

Through the years, there are basically three things that have remained unchanged on the Lincoln Cent: the diameter of 19 mm, the plain edge on the coin and the denomination of “one cent.” Due to space constrictions, I will address only some of the more major changes, varieties and anomalies that have occurred with the Lincoln Cent. For a more insight into some of the finer details of the coin, let me refer you to works authored by David Lange or Sol Taylor.


Composition refers to the material from which the coin was manufactured.

1.From 1909 to 1942, the Lincoln Cent was bronze. It was manufactured from .950 copper and .050 tin and zinc.
2.In 1943, the U.S. mint made the coin from steel coated zinc.
3.Starting in 1944 until 1958, our one-cent coin was composed of what Walter Breen called “Shell Case Bronze” i.e., .950 copper and .050 zinc.
4.In order to try and capture the original beauty of the penny, the mint returned to the original composition from 1959 to 1962.
5.From 1962 to 1982, the U.S. Mint once again modified the composition back to the “Shell Case Bronze.”
6.The big change occurred in 1982, which happens to be the present composition of our one-cent piece. It has a core made up of .992 zinc, and .080 copper with an outer plating of copper, rendering a coin with a total overall composition of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.

Proof Coins

Proof Coins are special coins not made for circulation, but are made as specimen examples for collectors. They are usually struck two or more time with at least twice the normal pressure, generally with specially prepared dies to bring out the detail.

1.From 1909 to 1917, the mint manufactured the Lincoln Cent as a Matte Proofs. The word “matte” refers to the finish on the proof coin. All Proofs were struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
2.In 1918, the production of proof coins was suspended due to the entrance of the United States into WW I in the later half of 1917. This ban on proof production remained in effect through 1935.
3.Starting in 1936 through 1942, proof production of the Lincoln Cent resumed, however the art of manufacturing Matte Proofs was lost.
4.Suspension of proofs was once again interrupted in 1943 by WW II; it wasn’t to resume again until 1950.
5.From 1950 to 1964, the manufacture of proofs remained uninterrupted.
6.Gresham’s Law prevailed from 1965 through 1967. Gresham’s Law states that both good money and bad money cannot coexist, or more simply put, bad money drives good money out of circulation. In 1965, the United States moved from silver coins to clad coins. Almost everybody hoarded the silver coins creating vast coin shortages. The U.S. Mint went into overdrive to produce enough coins to cover the shortage; therefore, proof production was suspended once again.
7.Proof production resumes in 1968 with proof now carrying the “S” mint mark for San Francisco.

Double Dies

A Double Die is an error in the manufacturing process, which results in a doubling of the image (devise) and the wording (legends) on the coin. In other words, the physical appearance of the coin is that it looks out of focus. A Double Die will occur either on the obverse (front) of the coin or the reverse (back). I have never seen a Double Die occur on both sides, but I’m sure there is one out there somewhere. The most common known obverse Double Dies on the Lincoln Cents are: 1917, 1936, 1955, 1958, 1969-S, 1971-S, 1972 and 1995. The only currently known Double Die appearing on the reverse is in 1983.

Strikeover Mint Marks

Before Mint Marks were made as a part of the die, the Mint Mark was hand punched into each die at the Philadelphia Mint prior to shipment to the designated branch mint. Occasionally an error was made, the punched Mint Mark was filled in, and the new Mint Mark was punched over the old. The result on the finished product is the faint outline of the previous Mint Mark showing from behind the current one. One of the most famous occurs on the 1900 Morgan dollar where the “O” (New Orleans) Mint Mark appears over the “CC” (Carson City) Mint Mark. The short hand for this is 1900-O/CC. The most common of the Strikeover Mint Marks on the Lincoln pennies are: 1909-S/lazy S, 1944-D/S, 1943 Bold D/D, 1946-S/D, and 1956-D/D (the old Mint Mark actually falls slightly below the new one).

The New Reverse

The most dramatic change to the cent occurred on the reverse in 1959 for the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth. The original Brenner design, commonly called the wheat back, was replaced with the Lincoln Memorial. Designed by Frank Gasparro (the co-designer of the Kennedy ½ Dollar, and designer of the Eisenhower Dollar), this new reverse was accepted with mixed reviews by Numismatists.

Other Varieties Of the Lincoln Cent

In addition to all the changes mentioned above, let’s add in a few more to the mix. We have: weight changes, modifications to the obverse, modifications to the reverse, large and small dates within the same year, large and small mint marks occurring in the same year, “S” mint marks that are called filled and unfilled, strong and weak mint marks, missing mint marks, along with a host of other varieties. With over 170 billion pennies produced since 1959, you can bet there are many more varieties to be documented. Maybe you will go down in the annals of numismatic history as discovering of one of them.

Who knew? What started out, for most of us, as a childhood collection of pennies could evolve into one of the most serious studies in numismatics today. Collecting the Lincoln Cent, it’s not just a child’s game anymore.

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