Cents Offer Interesting Varieties
By Paul M. Green
Make no mistake
about it, Lincoln Memorial cents thanks to
errors, composition changes and an assortment of
interesting coins have a lot more to offer than
many expect. It is an excellent time to start or
finish a Lincoln Memorial reverse cent
The Lincoln Memorial reverse was much bigger
news in 1959 than hobby history has remembered
it for us. Those of us who have personal
memories know that the design was introduced at
a time when the Lincoln cent was clearly the
leading set in terms of collector popularity.
There were countless numbers of baby boomers
starting to collect coins and the coin they
zeroed in on was the Lincoln cent. Anything
having an impact on cents was going to be very
popular and especially a change in design.
The change in the design was fascinating and
exciting for many at the time even if it did not
get particularly good reviews from the art
critics. In fact, it was not really the work of
Frank Gasparro that was at fault. The cent is
simply too small to really bring out details in
something like the Lincoln Memorial.
I can remember at the time pulling out
magnifying glasses simply to try to make out the
famous statue of Lincoln, which we knew should
be in there somewhere. The word “trolley car
cent” was used at the time, but frankly that did
not register me or with many as in our small
town we had never seen a trolley car. We simply
knew it was a new and exciting Lincoln cent,
although perhaps not a perfect design.
One of the things that was to prove interesting
about the whole process is that it turned out
that changing the reverse on the Lincoln cent
was the most dynamic thing that would be done
for decades as the cent design turned 50.
The secretary of the Treasury simply ordered the
change. He was perfectly within the law. It only
requires 25 years before a design can be changed
without consulting Congress. The secretary of
the Treasury just ordered the change and while
ironically we do not think of dynamic decisions
by cabinet members in the Eisenhower
Administration, the fact is that since the
decision, the Washington quarter and Jefferson
nickel each turned 50 in 1982 and 1988,
respectively, with absolutely nothing special
The Roosevelt dime also turned 50 in 1996 and
that produced a special production of a
Roosevelt dime at West Point, but realistically
generations of secretaries of the Treasury have
had the chance to do something to change coin
designs and have not acted since 1959.
It is hard nowadays to provide evidence of the
impact of the new Lincoln Memorial cent had at
the time except to suggest it was considerable.
A change in the quarter would have not been
greeted with as much interest simply because far
fewer collected the quarter in 1959. In the case
of a Lincoln cent change, however, young
collectors wanted not just one or two examples,
but uncirculated rolls from both Philadelphia
We can see at least some indication of the
initial interest in that it is reflected in the
sales of special sets in 1959. The proof set
sales number went from 875,652 in 1958 to
1,149,291 in 1959. That is a substantial
increase in one year. Mint set sales rose even
more, going from 50,314 in 1958 to 187,000 in
1959. You do not see mint set sales more than
triple normally unless something very special is
happening. The only very special thing happening
in 1959 was the new Lincoln cent reverse.
People at the time were realistic. Everyone knew
that with more public saving, the new Lincoln
Memorial reverse cent was not going to be tough
or valuable. The mintages confirmed what we
already knew as the Philadelphia total was
610,864,291 while the Denver total was
1,279,760,000. I remember at the time that the
mintage totals translated into a new 1959
Lincoln cent that was available for almost
everyone on the planet.
The enthusiasm was very real, but normally the
interest in a new design fades rather quickly.
That was not the case with the new Lincoln
Memorial reverse simply because of something
that was spotted on the obverse in 1960. The
date was modified in 1960 and that produced a
variety with a change in the numeral “6” in the
date. The so-called small date was produced both
at Philadelphia and Denver and this was followed
by a large date.
The difference is the lower loop of the numeral
curves back toward the back of the numeral more
sharply on the large date whereas on the small
date the lower loop looks like it almost wants
to touch the top of the numeral to make a “0”
out of it.
If you look at the prices of the 1960 small
dates with the Philadelphia in MS-65 now at $12
and a Proof-65 at $16, your immediate reaction
would be that they are nothing special. You
would actually not be far from the truth. The
Denver small date is only slightly lower priced
at $10 in MS-65 and the large-date Denver is
actually higher than the small-date Denver and
is priced at $11.
While the proof and business strike small-date
coins from Philadelphia while certainly tougher
to find than a normal large date are not exactly
coins that are likely to be featured in a major
auction anytime soon.
What the prices today fail to capture is the
spirit and excitement of the time. It has to be
remembered that back in 1959 checking your
change was a treasure hunt. Almost every
collector felt with good reason that there were
potentially valuable coins just waiting to be
found. We would go through roll after roll of
Lincoln cents in the hope of finding a 1909-S
VDB, but would settle for a 1912-D or something
else as proof that there were still great coins
awaiting our attention.
It also has to be remembered that some of the
best coins to be found were actually not old.
The 1950-D Jefferson nickel in 1959 was still a
sensation. People were looking high and low for
examples of the 1950-D and they could not be
found in change, so its price was near $6 in
uncirculated. That seemed like a fortune and if
it its subsequent price history is any guide,
relatively speaking, it was fortune. Six dollars
in 1960 would have been far better spent on
There had been a great deal of interest in the
coins of 1955 as the San Francisco coins were
supposed to be the final coins to be produced at
the western mint. That made them special and the
1955-S was the lowest mintage cent since the
1930s and not easy to find at all.
As if that was not enough, a 1955 doubled-die
obverse was discovered during the year of issue
and that got everyone excited. It was amazing as
there had previously been relatively little
interest in errors, but the 1955 doubled-die
obverse in many minds was the perfect error as
it was easy to spot with a doubled date and
doubled IN GOD WE TRUST. It was easy to spot,
but not many had the chance. It was rare and it
started soaring in price to a point where it
looked like it might really rival the famous
Coming right after the design change and just
five years after the 1955 doubled die,
collectors were primed for something like the
1960 small-date Lincoln cents when they were
found. The small-date coins might have been
hyped a bit, but that wasn’t the first or last
Everyone at the time seemed to honestly believe
that finding valuable coins in circulation was
normal and when some started suggesting that the
1960 small dates might actually be in the same
league as the 1955 doubled die that did not seem
out of place. Collectors today can see how
ridiculous such a claim was, but it took
collectors of 1960 some months to figure it out.
Is it any wonder that anything seemed possible
in 1960? There were objects passing overhead in
the night sky which had been launched by
rockets. There were TV sets where the picture
was actually in color.
As it turned out, the 1960 small dates did not
quite live up to our hopes of paying for college
or World Series tickets but they did keep the
interest in Lincoln cents high.
As it turned out the 1960 small dates would
actually be the first of a number as date
modifications in the cent to produce large and
small dates. That would happen again in 1970 and
again in 1982 and although there would be
promotion and speculation in the newer dates, it
did not seem to be quite as intense to the
participants as the speculation back in 1960,
but that is ironic as the 1970-S small date is
now $75 in MS-65, which is far more than even
the Philadelphia proof 1960 small date. That
just shows you want a lot of saving at the time
of issue will do to supplies and then prices
Interest in cents would generally reflect the
interest in coin collecting and that means it
was strong through 1964. The decision to
eliminate mintmarks in 1965, which was a
deliberate attempt to discourage coin
collecting, would do exactly that. By some
measures, 1964 was a pinnacle hobby year that
has never been equaled since. A market bust
There were no mintmarks for three years,
1965-1967, and that is not a long time, but to
young collectors it can seem like an eternity,
like three years without football or baseball
games. Moreover, the heart and soul of
collecting from circulation was finding dates
that were tougher. Those dates were almost
always from San Francisco or Denver, but the
idea of no mintmarks meant the mintage of Denver
and Philadelphia were combined, making one very
large total. There was simply no way such dates
would ever be better and that certainly hurt
There would never be a good time for having no
mintmarks, but coming at the same time as
eliminating silver from the dime and quarter and
reducing it to 40 percent in the half dollar
simply compounded an already bad situation.
By the end of 1968, silver coins were gone from
circulation. They were hoarded for their bullion
The Lincoln cent had also had a composition
change in 1962 which saw tin being eliminated
and making the composition 95 percent copper and
5 percent zinc. While it was not a major change,
it had to raise questions about the Lincoln cent
and its future.
Composition questions came to dog the cent. Once
silver prices soared, copper began to follow
suit in the 1970s. Cent hoarding became a matter
of interest in copper rather than of scarcer
dates. Shortages resulted.
Alternative alloys were considered. The leading
proposal at the time was aluminum and the Mint
jumped in by making 1,579,324 aluminum 1974
cents before there was any congressional
approval of a composition change. As it worked
out, that approval would never come, but in the
process of showing the new aluminum cents to
Congress, a few got out and that put the legal
status of those few 1974 aluminum cents in
To date one has been graded and the debate is
going on as to whether the 1974 aluminum cents,
while technically patterns and not cents as they
were never approved, are legal to own or not.
Images of seizures abound, but so far other than
requests there has been no official action but
that could change at any time.
Falling copper prices after a peak, relieved the
pressure to change the cent’s alloy, but this
turned out to simply be a stay of execution for
the copper alloy.
In 1982 the strong copper market forced a
change. Congress approved a composition of zinc
coated with copper. The percentages work out as
97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper. This
made the coin look virtually identical to the 95
percent copper alloy. Both compositions were
produced in 1982.
Small and large dates came with the composition
change, making the cents of 1982 virtually a
mini-collection by themselves. In all there are
seven possibilities as well as a 1982-S
proof-only from San Francisco.
More doubled dies arrived in 1972 which as IN
GOD WE TRUST and the date showed somewhat less
doubling than occurred on the 1955. It was a
sensation and had an interesting hoard that Q.
David Bowers describes in his book, American
Coin Treasures and Hoards. Georgia coin dealer
John Hamrick, who was driving around with some
$50 bags of 1972 Lincoln cents in the trunk of
his car, proved lucky. Those bags contained
thousands of the 1972 doubled die. With an
estimated total of perhaps 20,000 pieces minted,
it was a substantial hoard and at $775 today in
MS-65 a valuable one especially when the bags
had been purchased at regular 1972 prices.
Other doubled dies have included a 1983 which
had a reverse doubling of "UNITED STATES OF
AMERICA" and which is currently $400 in MS-65
while a 1984 with doubling of Lincoln’s ear is
at $275. The one that has lagged behind is the
1995, which saw substantial numbers coming from
a couple dealerships. It is $50 in MS-65, but
the price reflects the fact that the doubling on
the obverse date and “Liberty” is difficult to
make out with the naked eye.
There was also a noteworthy proof error in the
form of a “no S” 1990 in a few sets and that
coin is $2,750 today.
San Francisco Lincoln Memorial reverse cents are
an interesting group. Most are proof-only coins,
but the 1968-S to 1974-S issues were also struck
for circulation. These business strikes all have
lower mintages, not enough lower to make them
likely to command high premiums.
The proof-only San Francisco dates since 1975
are a different matter. They are a collection of
themselves. They are also considered by many
collectors to be part of the regular Lincoln
set. Future demand from those collectors might
prove to be far more than the likely supply of
broken up proof sets can handle.
The situation is complicated by the fact that
the cent is usually a small part of the proof
set price, so the decision to break up a set
usually being based on the prices of the
dollars, half dollar or quarter. The cent at
that point is of little concern and could be
sold for low prices or perhaps even thrown into
promotions by dealers. It makes for a number of
possibilities that could make some dates better
or not as good as mintages suggest.
In the case of business strikes, the future
might hold some potential surprises. Prices will
ultimate be decided by how many of the coins
were save by collectors in the uncirculated
grades at the time of issue.
After 1964, there was really very little saving
of the Lincoln Memorial reverse cent unless
something happened in the year of issue to call
attention to the denomination.
There was saving in 1982 because of the
composition change and the small and large
dates, but in most years there was simply no
special reason to save a few rolls of cents.
There were no mint sets in 1982 and 1983 and
that might reduce the supply of uncirculated
cents. Certainly the price of uncirculated rolls
already reflect this. The 1982 is $12 for a BU
roll and the 1983-D is $11.
There have also been signs of life from other
dates. The 1967 for example has gone from $1.25
for an uncirculated roll in 1998 to $12.50 today
(according to a John Wells ad in Numismatic
News). The 1969 has also posted a gain moving to
$10 per roll while the 1986 has been very
interesting, having had a premium price almost
from the time it was released, it has now moved
to $36 to match the 1986-D.
At $23.95 per roll, the 1984-D also has a large
premium and with time and additional demand
there could easily be others.
The future of Memorial cents lies not in the
hands of the baby boomers who remember when they
were first issued, but in the hands of their
children and grandchildren and whether the cent
as a denomination will be as worthy of respect
in future years as it was during those happy
days of the Eisenhower Administration.