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New Lincolns Spur Impossible Dream
By Paul M. Green

You know you are getting old when you remember the last time the Lincoln cent had a design change. It's almost like reaching an age where you get your first AARP solicitation in the mail as every 50 years we seem to have a Lincoln design change and that looks like it will happen again.

Of course, the legislation involving the Lincoln cent that was part of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 does leave the door open to keeping the current design in 2010 after the commemorative designs in 2009, but in fact if you read that legislation, a change seems more likely.

Regarding the Lincoln cent reverse the law states, "The design on the reverse of the 1-cent coins issued after Dec. 31, 2009, shall bear an image emblematic of President Lincoln's preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country."

Obviously that wording leaves the issue wide open, but many would be hard-pressed to see how the Lincoln Memorial in Washington fits into the spirit of the new law.

In fact, there are other elements to the new law that are interesting and potentially a great deal of fun if officials truly get into the spirit of the anniversary. Already we are sure that there will be four reverses on the Lincoln cents of 2009, with one featuring his birth and early childhood in Kentucky. Another has his formative years in Indiana. A third features his professional career in Illinois and the final one will depict his presidency in Washington, D.C. with all lasting just one year for 2009.

Certainly supplies produced will be sufficient to make them a one-year type, but an available one not unlike what we see with 50 state quarters or saw back in 1976 with the special Bicentennial reverses for the quarter, half dollar and dollar.

Another feature of the new law could potentially be lots of fun. The law requires that, "The Secretary of the Treasury shall issue 1-cent coins in 2009 with the exact metallic content as the 1-cent coin contained in 1909 in such number as the Secretary determines to be appropriate for numismatic purposes."

The whole idea is interesting although it leaves out a feature most would want and that is that the design on these special coins be the same as in 1909, including the initials of the artist Victor D. Brenner on the reverse, as they were present for the first examples of the new Lincoln cent. That initial production was 27,995,000 in Philadelphia and just 484,000 in San Francisco before the initials were removed.

In fact, a Numismatic News reader made a great suggestion, which is that the mintage be precisely the same as the famous 1909-S VDB, which would be exactly 484,000.

Although the secretary of the Treasury will probably not go along with it, I would go a step a further and make 484,000 proof 2009-S VDB cents for sale to collectors and then make 484,000 business strikes and simply dump them into circulation.

Of course there would be a problem as 484,000 business strikes would cost more than their face value to produce, but I would contend that the profits of 484,000 proofs sold to collectors at a price of $19.95 or $9.95, or whatever, would more than offset the small loss on 484,000 business strikes sent to the banks at face value.

If it is still a problem, make the 484,000 of the new composition but using the 1909-S VDB design with wheat stalks and the VDB on the back. The point is simply to do something special to celebrate a very big anniversary. Moreover, the good will and the fun would be well worth any small loss if the original composition is used.

Some might object to such a notion as having the nation turned upside down with people trying to find one of just 484,000 special 2009-S VDB cents that are out there in circulation somewhere might seem somehow inappropriate, but in fact it is really keeping with what I would see as the true spirit of the Lincoln cent as Lincoln cents have always amounted to something perilously akin to a national treasure hunt.

It is safe to say that as the design changes many like me will think back over the years to the fun we have had with Lincoln cents and quite frankly almost all of that fun will have to do with trying desperately to find better Lincoln cents in circulation. It's basically been that way since the first Lincoln cents emerged back in 1909.

We know there was a lot of interest all over the nation when the first Lincoln cent appeared. It was natural as it was the cent and everyone had cents in their pockets. Moreover, it was Abraham Lincoln and there were still some alive in 1909 who had been alive back when Lincoln was President. Moreover, it was the first time an American had been used on a circulating coin and all of that came together to make the Lincoln cent one of the most anticipated new issues in history.

It must have been enormous fun to have been a coin collector back in San Francisco in 1909 when the first 1909-S VDB appeared. Of course it would have been fun in Philadelphia as well, but in August of that year when the small VDB was removed and it was learned how low that San Francisco mintage of 1909-S VDB cents would be that would have really been fun.

Back at the time, the 484,000 probably meant less to many especially in light of the fact that in the very same year there had been just 309,000 Indian Head cents made in San Francisco, which means the 1909-S Indian Head cent was the lowest mintage regular date cent stretching all the way back to 1811.

Of course, to be a collector in San Francisco at the time would have meant you had two great cents to acquire and one awfully good one as the 1909-S Lincoln cent that came after the 1909-S VDB also had a very low mintage.

I wasn't in San Francisco back in 1909, although there is at least one young member of the family who thinks it's a distinct possibility as I certainly seem that old to her.

I was, however, around and collecting when the original wheat stalk reverse Lincoln cent was the only Lincoln cent and it's those fun-filled days of the 1950s that make me feel that simply dumping 484,000 2009-S VDB cents into circulation and watching the fun would be perfectly appropriate for celebrating 100 years of the Lincoln cent.

The image many have of coin collecting in the 1950s is not at all right. The 1950s have this image as a nice orderly time and some of that is true. As the children of the so-called "Greatest Generation," it's safe to suggest we were a relatively polite and disciplined group of youngsters. That came from our parents who had lived through the Great Depression and fought World War II.

My father earned his Distinguished Flying Cross with 25 missions over Germany in a B-17, and while he was doing that, he also learned some things that he passed on to his family.

He was good as his word and if that meant the family car was leaving at 4 in the morning, it left at 4 in the morning, with or without you. You cleaned your plate and watched whatever he chose as the appropriate family TV viewing on the black and white TV, which was on no more than three hours a day.

Of course all that discipline and order sometimes hid the fact that when it came to coins and coin collecting I and my friends were savage animals in our quest for good coins and riverboat gamblers when it came to the idea of a new coin that might prove to be valuable.

Today, with the exception of major coin shows, coin collecting tends to be a fairly quiet and passive activity for many. You order your coins, study them, perhaps read a new good book on your favorite items, but it's all fairly orderly done primarily in the calm of your favorite chair at home.

Not so for the young collectors of the 1950s. We were street fighters and the search for good coins was an active one. Maybe I got off on the wrong foot, but with an arm wrapped in bandages from a schoolyard fall and being unable to use it for months just as summer vacation arrived, I was introduced to coin collecting by my friend Billy Field.

In what can only be described as an intense three hours in his room one day Billy explained to me in no small detail the joy of coin collecting and the special challenge he was going to overcome in completing a set of Mercury dimes.

Never, not 50 years later, have I ever seen anyone get so worked up over Mercury dimes. The emotion in his voice was enough to still give me chills today. It's no surprise that Billy went on to West Point as he was made to lead men into battle.

As it was, he almost frightened me to death. I was convinced coin collecting might be a good idea, but I decided after receiving my marching orders from Billy that I was going to collect Lincoln cents as Mercury dimes seemed far too intense for me.

That said, Billy had made an impression. He explained that you could not wait for good coins to fall into your hands. You had to go out and find good coins and that meant creativity and hard work. He was right even if Gen. Patton could have explained the same thing with a little less intensity.

I went right out and bought not one but two Lincoln cent holders as already the Lincoln cent had been around so long and being produced most years at three different mints. There was a Book I, which had all the dates through 1940, and a Book II that started with 1941 and went up to the present, with a lot of holes left over for dates to be made in future years.

I went after coins in both books at the same time, but Book II was no challenge except for the 1955-S, which was a lot tougher than its mintage of 44,610,000 suggested. That was probably because so many were hoarded, but whatever the reason, the 1955-S was not an easy date to find.

The other coin I was looking for from 1955 was not included in the book as the 1955 doubled-die obverse was an error, but as a coin dealer friend suggested it was the "perfect error." It was visible and on a Lincoln cent. Moreover, there was an estimated mintage of perhaps as many as 20,000, which made it very elusive but not impossible.

The 1955 doubled-die obverse bothered me because there were reports of people finding them and some were close to where I lived in New York, so it seemed like I should find at least one, but that never happened.

There was no 1955 doubled-die obverse, but my organized search did pay off. I had a simple system that involved going from one of the three banks in town to the next each morning. I would always start out with extra cents in case I found some I needed because at each bank I would give them one roll of cents in exchange for another. Then I would stop at the library or a soda fountain to check that roll and get it ready to be exchanged at the next bank.

Once I had been to all three banks once, I would stop at my grandfather's restaurant for a hamburger and a chance to check the cash register and tips of all the employees before starting back again to all three banks one more time completing a circle of town, which would end me up at home by mid afternoon.

That process repeated over and over again for an entire summer saw any number of good dates pop up. I found one 1909 VDB early, but it was badly worn. A second, however, in XF appeared and that was really exciting. I spent hours trying to figure out where that 1909 VDB had been because it had obviously not been circulating for nearly half a century.

Most of the time the better dates like a 1913-S of which I had a couple were in lower grades. In fact, by today's standards some might not have made G-4 as a cent would get a lot of wear over time.

At the time, however, it was the Denver dates from 1911-1915 that seemed to be more heavily worn than the lower mintage San Francisco dates from the same years.

I did have one nice San Francisco date from the early years that turned up in a surprising place. Every year there would be special church offerings for missionary activity. The Sunday School kids would be given small churches that were like a piggy bank where you could put coins. After a month they were collected. My mother being a deacon was assigned the task of counting and rolling all those coins. It was a job that took a full afternoon, but I cheerfully offered to help and sure enough one little church produced a 1911-S, which was an awfully good Lincoln cent anyway, but this one was at least in F-12, which is far nicer than coins of that period were usually found.

I was surprisingly lucky with circulation finds, but I was also lucky at the local coin shops. Billy in has stirring address on the Mercury had sort of glossed over the matter of grading. Buying the best grade we could afford back in the 1950s was a no-brainer as we were hoping not to buy any coins. The goal was to find them and pay face value.

That said, I still loved coin shops. Every Saturday instead of sleeping late I would be up early just to be at one of the local coin shops when they would open. A good day of asking questions and learning about coins people collected and had found was about the best way I could imagine to spend a day.

As it turned out, there were also usually junk boxes and over time I would turn up a 1909-S and 1914-D in those junk boxes. Of course they were in terrible condition, or they wouldn't have ended up in the junk boxes, but with virtually no date or mintmark visible from wear or damage, they could escape the quick check of the dealer and end up in the junk box at a bargain price.

By the time the reverse of of the Lincoln cent was changed in 1959 it was clear that despite months of looking and miles of walking on my appointed rounds to the town banks, my Lincoln cent collection had gone about as far as it could go and it was time for me to move on to another denomination.

The arrival of the Lincoln Memorial reverse still was exciting and not just for one year.

It has to be remembered that in 1959 I had never really seen a design change. I was born the year after the Franklin half dollar, so at age 10 I was about to see my first design change in the Lincoln cent. I remember fearing briefly that the design had not changed as the first two banks reported no new rolls of Lincoln cents, but at the third, there they were, the new Lincoln Memorial reverse cents of 1959.

It's amazing to me to think that design may change since it was the first change I ever saw. I remember some were not impressed with the new design. Someone called it a "trolley car," which drew a blank stare from me as all I had ever seen were pictures of trolley cars. I figured anyone who thought it looked like a trolley car and not the Lincoln Memorial had to be really old.

Like others, I was only interested briefly but then I heard about the 1960 small dates. It seems in the course of routine date modification in 1960 there were Lincoln cents produced with a short stem on the "6" It happened at both Philadelphia and Denver and there was a lot of promotion and talk that the small-date Lincoln cents might be valuable. Like many others, I was a believer and immediately returned to my old ways in the hope of finding small-date 1960 cents.

Looking for small-date cents was tough work simply because only a percentage of every roll would be coins from 1959 or 1960. If it was a 1960, you had to look carefully to be sure if it was a small or regular date. As it turned out, I found only one Philadelphia small-date but would find one or two Denver small dates every day.

Initially, visions of buying a new bicycle or skiing in the Swiss Alps or something were dancing through my head, but at about the point where I had half a roll I realized no one could be that lucky and that the 1960-D small date would not be anything special.

I immediately traded off a few but also ended the active search. If I found one, I would keep it, and I did get up to a roll.Realistically, I knew it was a coin that was going nowhere in price, meaning I was going nowhere on the profits.

Even with that unfortunate result, the search was always fun and that has been the lifelong attraction of Lincoln cents.

Now reaching the century mark, it's impossible to calculate how many hours of fun searching rolls and pocket change the Lincoln cent has provided generation after generation of Americans. The totals would be staggering for many youngsters of every generation since 1909 have taken up the challenge of completing a Lincoln cent set.

Finding valuable Lincoln cents was always a goal, but it was the fun of the hunt that kept us going. That is why if officials really want to celebrate the centennial of the Lincoln cent in 2009, they should give us one last chance for a great treasure hunt and in addition to the four new reverses give something back to the hobby that has purchased all those proof sets, commemoratives and other items over the years and just drop 484,000 2009-S VDB cents in circulation and let us have one last great treasure hunt.

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