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Designer initials trigger 1909 cents debate
By Paul Gilkes

Two of the four Lincoln cents issued for circulation during the 1909 inaugural year of the small cent series bear the v.d.b. initials of the coin's designer, sculptor Victor David Brenner, on the bottom border of the reverse.

Images courtesy of HeritageAuctions.com. The first two Lincoln cents to be issued in 1909 from the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints bear the initials of designer Victor D. Brenner on the reverse, seen in close up to the right. The initials were ordered removed from dies by Mint Director Frank A. Leach five days after the initial production was released into circulation Aug. 2, 1909.

Brenner had initially hoped to have his entire surname spelled out in the reverse location.

The 1909 Lincoln, v.d.b. cent registered a reported mintage at the Philadelphia Mint of 27.995 million coins. The 1909-S Lincoln, v.d.b. cent's mintage of 484,000 coins at the San Francisco Mint represents the lowest circulation output of any cent for the entire series to date.

Two other Lincoln cents – a 1909 and 1909-S, both without the v.d.b. – were issued after Mint officials reacted (or overreacted) to news inquiries about Brenner's initials.

The eagerness with which the public awaited the Aug. 2, 1909, release into circulation of the first Lincoln cents was quickly overshadowed the same day with the media's realization that Brenner had signed the reverse with his initials.

According to Roger W. Burdette in Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915, on the afternoon of Aug. 2, the Washington Star newspaper requested a response from the Treasury Department concerning the appearance of the coin designer's initials.

Other newspapers began making their own inquiries and publishing stories quoting anonymous sources that the initials were illegal advertising or were not supposed to be there. Assistant Treasury Secretary Charles D. Norton subsequently consulted Aug. 4 with Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John H. Landis about the initials.

Landis replied by telephone to Norton, and followed up with a letter, indicating that U.S. Mint Director Frank A. Leach had authorized the initials on Feb. 27, 1909.

"The design, as completed, was approved by the Honorable Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Mint July 15 [sic, 14], 1909, copy of which is also enclosed," Landis wrote in his Aug. 4, 1909, letter to Norton.

"I would say that it was proposed that the initial of Mr. Brenner's last name only be used, but as this was the same as that designed by Mr. Barber [Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber], it was not distinctive enough and the three initials had to be used."

Norton became involved in the controversy when Leach's resignation was accepted on July 31, 1909.

The matter of Brenner's initials was handled by Norton, MacVeagh and U.S. Treasurer Charles H. Treat, with the advice of Barber.

Abram Piatt Andrew, who eventually succeeded Leach, was intentionally excluded from any of the discussions, according to Burdette.

On Aug. 5, 1909, MacVeagh informed Norton that while there would be no cent recall, production of cents with the initials was to cease immediately. Norton suspended production on Aug. 5, with Barber dispatched to Washington, D.C., from Philadelphia to follow through with McVeagh's plans.

During an Aug. 6 meeting between Norton, Barber and Acting Mint Director Robert Preston, Barber, according to Burdette, expressed his preference for removing the v.d.b. initials entirely from the working hubs from which working dies would be made, rather than trying to engrave the letter b into a "mother" (master) die.

Barber expressed his position that the letter b could be easily engraved into the master die, but the v.d.b. could not because the letters were raised. Barber also believed that adding the b would confuse the public into believing the cent – which he opposed from the beginning and did not believe would be a successful coin – was his work, and Barber did not want to be held responsible.

Brenner didn't learn about the decision to remove the initials entirely until asked for his comments by newspaper reporters.

Preston issued the instructions on Aug. 7 to Landis to have new dies prepared with Brenner's initials absent.

Cutting new hubs – which Barber had advised would take two weeks – took less than a day.

Production of the Lincoln cent sans Brenner's initials subsequently resumed at the Philadelphia Mint and San Francisco Mint.

The v.d.b. initials were placed incuse in Lincoln's shoulder, next to the rim, beginning in 1918.

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