Did you know? One hundred two years ago today, the first Lincoln cents were introduced to the public.
In the history section of the Treasury Department’s web site, they note for August 2, 1909, “The Lincoln one-cent coin was issued to replace the Indian Head penny. It was the first circulating coin to feature a real person and the first to feature a President of the United States.”
Earlier in January 1909, the Treasury Department released an announcement to the public and to numismatists that President Theodore Roosevelt had approved placing Lincoln’s portrait on a popular coin. At the time they speculated that Lincoln’s likeness would be on the obverse of the half dollar but cautioned that no decision had been made.
After much prodding of the Director of the Mint, in March it was revealed that Lincoln would appear on the one-cent coin.
In interviews, Mr. Brenner commented about his Lincoln head design, “The other yes, it is good, but this one is more intimate, deeper, more kind and personal. It is closer to the man; it makes you feel that you are sitting with him in his library. When it is finished I shall be nearly satisfied with it.”
When asked why the cent, Mr. Brenner responded that the one-cent and five-cent coins were over the twenty-five year life span of a coin’s design. He chose the one-cent coin and worked on the most fitting Lincoln likeness for the coin’s size.
Later in his formal letter to Director Leach, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh provided approval for Victor D. Brenner’s design:
“The design of the one-cent piece bearing the head of President Lincoln, as prepared by Mr. Victor D. Brenner, and modified by the Director of the Mint by placing the head of President Lincoln nearer the center of the coin and adding the motto “In God We Trust,” is approved, and the coinage of the one-cent piece of this design is hereby authorized.
“The issue of these pieces will commence August 2, 1909.”
After the design was complete, the Treasury Department described the new Lincoln one-cent coin:
“Obverse: Bust of Abraham Lincoln facing right; above the head the inscription, IN GOD WE TRUST; to the left of the head the word LIBERTY and to the right the year of coinage. Reverse: Around the upper circle the inscription E PLURIBUS UNUM; across the centre the denomination, ONE CENT, and the inscription, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; on either side of the coin and partially encircling the two last-mentioned inscriptions are ears of wheat treated in a very conventional manner.
“On the reverse at rim, below centre, V.D.B. for Victor D. Brenner, the designer.
Not one of the first, but an obverse example of the Lincoln one-cent coin:
Next, the reverse showing the wheat ears:
Drama, however, surrounded the coin. Charles E. Barber, Chief Engraver for the Mint, was not happy that someone outside the Mint designed the new Lincoln cent. Furthermore, he did not like the coin’s design.
Whether contrariness by Mr. Barber or a technical issue, Mr. Brenner’s initials were removed from the coin’s design. In 1918 after Mr. Barber’s death in 1917, Mr. Brenner’s initials returned to the Lincoln cent design, this time on the obverse near the rim and Lincoln’s shoulder.
You can find details about the intrigue in the Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents by David W. Lange.