By Tom LaMarre
had a good idea when he decided there should be
a coin honoring the 100th anniversary of Abraham
Lincoln's birth. Just as good were his choices
of the denomination to be used and the sculptor
to design it, Victor D. Brenner.
The Numismatist called Brenner a "brilliant
young medallist and ornament to the American
Numismatic Association." Poet Frank Dempster
Sherman, who wrote a tribute to the Lincoln cent
that appeared in the magazine, described Brenner
as a genius. Few would argue the point.
The Lincoln cent proved to be so popular, and
the portrait so moving, that the obverse is
still going strong a century after its
introduction. Instead of the original wheat ears
reverse or the Lincoln Memorial design that
replaced it in 1959, there are new reverse
designs marking the centennial of the Lincoln
cent and the Lincoln Bicentennial.
An image of Lincoln nearly identical to the one
on the cent first appeared on a bronze plaque
Brenner created in 1907. The Lincoln Centennial
was fast approaching. Brenner later recalled
that his mind was "full of Lincoln."
The plaque is a real prize for cent collectors.
At a Heritage sale in September 2007, an example
realized nearly $5,000.
The right edge of the plaque was inscribed
"Copyright by V.D. Brenner." But there would be
no royalties for Brenner as the designer of the
According to the August 1909 issue of The
Numismatist, "Lincoln's head as it appears on
Brenner's medal, and Brenner's friendship with
Teddy Roosevelt "developed from the sittings for
and success of the Roosevelt-Panama medal and
led to this model for coinage purposes."
It happened in 1908. Roosevelt was sitting for
Brenner and admired his Lincoln plaque. The
choice of denomination was still undecided. A
Jan. 30, 1909, letter from the Treasury
Department to the editor of The Numismatist
"President Roosevelt has given his consent to
the placing of the head of Lincoln on one of the
popular coins. He conferred today with Director
Leach, of the mint, and details are now under
advisement. Victor D. Brenner, the New York
sculptor, has submitted to the director some
models of Lincoln busts, and these have been
shown to the president. The head of Lincoln will
adorn one side of the coin and the customary
coat of arms the other.
"It is probable that the half dollar piece will
be selected as the principal coin to bear the
Lincoln head, but some legislation may be
necessary to make the change.
The Numismatist later said that Roosevelt
proposed the Lincoln cent early in the year,
"and long and tedious were Mr. Brenner's efforts
to make it in every way satisfying." Brenner
claimed the choice of denomination was his own.
"You see the life of a coin is 25 years,
according to law, and the time for the cent and
the five-cent piece has expired. It seemed to me
that the nickel already had a very practical
design, and so I turned my attention to what
would be most fitting for the one-cent coin."
The images of Lincoln on the medal and the cent
were based on a photograph by Anthony Berger
taken on Feb. 9, 1864, in Mathew Brady's
Washington, D.C. studio.
Although they may look the same, the portrait on
the cent is not an exact copy of the one on the
medal. Brenner was a perfectionist and made some
changes. "It is more intimate, deeper, more kind
and personal," Brenner wrote of Lincoln's image
on the cent. "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."
Production of Indian Head cents continued in the
early part of 1909 at Philadelphia and San
Francisco. On Feb. 21, 1909, a newspaper
reported the Indian head would be replaced by a
Lincoln design. The New York Times said the old
cent dies would be destroyed "in a few days."
Roosevelt left office before the new design was
ready. His successor, William Howard Taft,
suggested a finishing touch.
"Information from Washington indicates that the
now long-anticipated Lincoln cent will not be
issued before August," the June 1909 issue of
The Numismatist reported. "When examples from
the supposed completed dies were submitted to
President Taft, it is said that he asked for the
motto 'In God We Trust' to be placed on the
coin." The inscription was added to the obverse,
above Lincoln's portrait.
On the first Lincoln cent models, Brenner's last
name was spelled out on the reverse. He was
informed his "signature" was too prominent, and
he replaced "Brenner" with "V.D.B." Brenner was
a perfectionist. The changes took time. The
March 1909 issue of The Numismatist said:
"Several months may pass before the long
familiar Indian Head cent will be displaced by a
proposed new issue which will have for its main
device the head of Lincoln.& Since [the
acceptance of the designs], Mr. Brenner has been
kept very busy making the suggested, slight but
The dies reportedly were made by Henry Weil, who
was described as "a highly respected French
sculptor living in New York City." Weil was a
founder of the Medallic Art Co., which had a
Janvier machine and occasionally made reductions
of coin designs.
The Mint struck millions of Lincoln cents in
anticipation of heavy demand. More than 20
million were struck by the time the Mint closed
on July 1, 1909, for summer vacation.
Meanwhile, there was growing public interest in
the new cent. The July 1, 1909, issue of The
Evening Telegram, published in Elyria, Ohio,
reported that Lincoln cents had "already been
made and proofs struck off and submitted."
Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh approved
the design on July 14, 1909. The first examples
were released to the public on Aug. 2.
"With the approval of the Secretary of the
Treasury, the new design for the bronze one-cent
piece was adopted in April 1909," the Mint
Director later wrote in his annual report. "On
the obverse the head of Lincoln appears instead
of the Indian Head which this piece had borne
since 1864 [on bronze cents, and as far back as
1859 on copper-nickel cents].
"The engraver of the Mint at Philadelphia was
instructed to prepare dies, and coinage of this
piece was commenced in May. No coins were paid
out until after the close of the fiscal year. A
stock was accumulated at the Philadelphia Mint
to enable that institution to be in a position
to fill orders promptly. The distribution of
this piece was commenced on Aug. 2, 1909."
There was a circus atmosphere when the first
Lincoln cents were released on Aug. 2, 1909. The
Aug. 3, 1909, issue of The Daily Press,
published in Sheboygan, Wis., said, "Countenance
of Great Emancipator to Adorn Coin: Design Made
From a Photograph."
"They will soon be widely scattered, and the new
coin will be known in every hamlet in the
country," the August 1909 issue of The
Numismatist predicted. "Business houses, which
have ordered them in quantity for distribution
for advertising purposes and for use as change,
will largely contribute to the early general
The Aug. 3, 1909, issue of the Christian Science
Monitor said it would be months before the just
released Lincoln cent would replace the Indian
Head cent, and weeks before it was in the hands
of the general public.
At the Philadelphia Mint, a limit of two Lincoln
cents per person was imposed. At the
Sub-Treasury, the limit was set at 100 cents.
Newsboys bought Lincoln cents by the hundred and
sold them at prices ranging from two for a
nickel to 25 cents each.
The Washington, D.C., Sub-Treasury received a
shipment of 200,000 Lincoln cents and set a
limit of one roll - 50 cents - to a person.
Brenner obtained some of the new coins and
placed them in cardboard holders, which he
signed and gave to his friends.
Many people wanted to use Lincoln cents for
jewelry purposes. Capt. Thomas Porter of the
Secret Service was asked whether the new cents
could be gold-plated for use as cuff links or
tie tacs. Citing a federal law prohibiting the
"mutilation" of United States coins, his answer
Critical reaction to the Lincoln cent was
favorable, although the New York Times was sorry
to see the Indian go. The Numismatist said, "The
new coin embodies simplicity with art and seems
in every way qualified for utility, and being
our coin of smallest denomination, it will bring
to the low and wanting the features of the one
who was the friend of their class."
The Washington Post called the Lincoln cent
"distinctly pretty" and "bright, shiny and
A Massachusetts farmer named Ephraim Baldwin
liked the Lincoln cent so much that he told his
children he would pay a dollar for each one they
could obtain for him.
According to a story in the New York Herald, 40
bartenders went home celebrating, each believing
he had the only Lincoln cent that escaped the
Mint. The drunk who fooled them and swapped the
coins for drinks was taken to the police
The initial stockpile of Lincoln cents was
depleted by Aug. 10 - 25 million coins gone in
just eight days.
A thousand Lincoln cents were distributed at a
Labor Day barbecue in Washington, D.C. The
finders of 20 specially marked coins received a
$5 gold coin.
The debut of the Lincoln cent was not without
problems. From several sources came reports the
Lincoln cent was thicker than the Indian Head
cent, resulting in headaches for manufacturers
of coin-operated machines.
The Aug. 18, 1909, issue of the Galveston Daily
News said, "The edges of the coin are raised to
protect the relief work of the Lincoln head."
The newspaper claimed the raised edges made the
Lincoln cent nearly the thickness of a nickel.
The Washington Post also said the Lincoln cent
was too thick to be used in vending machines.
Another story said the Lincoln cent was larger
and heavier than the Indian Head cent and was
being passed as a nickel in pay phones.
Nevertheless, there were no changes to the size
or thickness of the Lincoln cent.
A more serious complaint involved the prominence
of Brenner's initials. Amid rumors of a recall,
the Aug. 7, 1909, issue of the Warren Evening
Mirror said "Lincoln Pennies are Here to Stay"
and reported that the "new coins are not to be
withdrawn from circulation."
Just over a week later, the cent presses were
silenced while new reverse dies were being
prepared without the initials. At first, it was
reported the "V.D.B." would be replaced with a
"B." An Aug. 15, 1909, press dispatch said:
"Secretary of the Treasury MacVeagh announced
today he had decided to have the minting of the
new Lincoln pennies stopped and that new dies
will be prepared eliminating the initials of the
designer, which now appear so prominently, and
substituting the single initial 'B' in an
obscure part of the design.
"The Secretary said that none of the pennies
issued so far would be called in, but that the
minting would be stopped because a sufficient
supply was on hand. The initials 'V.D.B.' are
those of the designer, V.D. Brenner of New York,
and the single letter 'B,' in an inconspicuous
place, will be left in the new dies as
recognition of Mr. Brenner's work.
"Mr. MacVeagh said that he did not know that the
initials would appear in embossed form on the
pennies, and that he was surprised when he saw
the prominent place they had been given in the
design. It has been customary to permit
designers to cut one or more of their initials
into the design somewhere, but these letters
usually have been so small as to require a
magnifying glass to discover them."
The report was not entirely accurate. Because
the Mint's chief engraver Charles Barber used
the letter "B" to sign his coin designs, it was
not used on the Lincoln cent. Brenner gave his
opinion in an Aug. 23, 1909, letter to American
Numismatic Association president Farran Zerbe:
"It is mighty hard for me to express my
sentiments with reference to the initials on the
cent. The name of the artist on a coin is
essential for the student of history as it
enables him to trace environments and conditions
of the time said coin was produced. Much fume
has been made about my initials as a means of
advertisement; such is not the case. The very
talk the initials has brought out has done more
good for numismatics than it could do me
"The cent not alone represents in part my art,
but it represents the type of art of our period.
"The conventionalizing of the sheafs of wheat
was done by me with much thought, and I feel
that with the prescribed wording no better
design could be obtained. The cent will wear out
two of the last ones in time, due entirely to
the hollow surface.
"The original design had Brenner on it, and that
was changed to the initials. Of course the issue
rests with the numismatic bodies, and Europe
will watch the outcome with interest."
At a convention in Montreal in August 1909, ANA
members passed a resolution protesting the
removal of the initials. Texas dealer B. Max
Mehl wrote in Mehl's Numismatic Monthly:
"The question of a designers' initials on a cent
piece is not a vital one, and there is no doubt
that the world is too little mindful of the
artist's just claim to its recognition. But an
artist who can design and execute a coin or
medal of merit certainly should have the
privilege of attaching his name, or at least his
initials, upon his work, the same as the painter
places his name on the canvas and the sculptor
on his work. St. Gaudens and Pratt, we believe,
placed their names on the late issue of gold
"We should make concerted efforts to have the
initials of Mr. Brenner retained on the Lincoln
cents, not because Mr. Brenner is a member of
the A.N.A., but for the historical knowledge it
will convey to future generations.
"The Lincoln cent is being admired by the public
as an appreciative work of art; then why not
retain the initials, which will keep us from
being forgetful of he name of the artist whose
genius conceived it."
But the matter did not rest with coin collecting
organizations. The campaign to keep the
Brenner's initials on the cent was a failure. It
wasn't until 1918 that "V.D.B." was added in
almost microscopic letters along the edge of the
In 1909, the elimination of the initials
intensified interest in the Lincoln cent. The
Numismatist advised coin dealers to have in
constant operation "a phonograph that will grind
out, 'No premium on Lincoln cents with V.D.B. on
them, or with anything else on or off them."
The message was the same nearly a year later.
The May 25, 1910, issue of the Fitchburg Daily
Sentinel said there was no premium for the 1909
Lincoln cent variety without the initials.
Looking back, it seems like the deal of the
century. In a classified ad in Mekeel's Weekly
Stamp News, E.D. Bothwell of Oakland, Calif.,
offered "new Lincoln pennies, V.D.B., first
issue, rare 7c each, postfree." No doubt they
were the now highly prized 1909-S VDB cents.
Currently, a Mint State-60 example is valued at
The 1909-S V.D.B. had a mintage of only 484,000.
The 1909-S Lincoln cent without the designer's
initials had a mintage of more than 1.8 million.
Coin Prices lists it at $360 in Mint State-60.
The value is roughly the same for a variety with
the "S" mintmark repunched over a horizontal
The Denver Mint had opened in 1906 but would not
begin striking cents until 1911. Mint Director
George E. Roberts wrote of operations at the
Denver Mint in his annual report, "The first
coinage here of bronze one-cent pieces was on
May 20, 1911."
At the Philadelphia Mint, nearly 28 million 1909
V.D.B. cents were struck, including some with a
doubled-die obverse. The variety is valued at
$150 in MS-60. A normal 1909 V.D.B. cent from
the Philadelphia Mint is valued at $25 in MS-60.
In 1910, it was a different story. Newspapers
said no premium was being paid for 1909 Lincoln
cents of any kind. Still, requests for Lincoln
cents continued to pour into the Treasury
Department from banks throughout the country.
Hoarding was so widespread that people in some
remote areas were still unfamiliar with the new
coin. In October 1910, a North Dakota resident
saw his first Lincoln cent and wrote a letter to
the postmaster general asking if it was
Now, a century and billions of coins later, it's
hard to imagine a world without Brenner's