Kentucky was honored in 2001 with the 15th coin in the popular State quarters program (see the two related “From the Colonel’s Desk” columns from earlier this month). A few years later the United States Mint would issue another coin with roots in the Bluegrass State. Although more than half a billion of the new coins were minted, you might not have found one in circulation yet. Keep your eyes on your pocket change!
First, some background:
For every American living today (except for the few dozen born in the early 1900s who are still with us), the “penny” has always been the Lincoln cent. This coin debuted in 1909, the centennial year of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. It was the first U.S. coin minted for circulation to feature the portrait of a real person, rather than a symbolic figure of Liberty, and the first one-cent coin to bear the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
From 1909 to 1958 the reverse of the Lincoln cent had a “Wheat Ears” design. In 1959 a new motif was introduced: a view of the landmark Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In 2000, looking ahead to Honest Abe’s 200th birthday, Congress established the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Its 14 members were appointed by President Bill Clinton and both houses of Congress, with input from the governors of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Their goal: To plan celebrations and ceremonies to honor President Lincoln, including rededicating the Lincoln Memorial, reenacting his historic debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and organizing similar programs.
Also among the commemorations: A series of four new reverse designs for the one-cent coin, each marking a major period of Lincoln’s life, and all issued in the bicentennial year of 2009.
The first coin in this series was designed by artist Richard Masters and sculpted by Mint sculptor-engraver Jim Licaretz. Its motif shows a log cabin like the one Abraham Lincoln was born in. The legislation that authorized the coins described his frontier origins:
Born of humble roots in Hardin County (present-day LaRue County), Kentucky, on February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln rose to the Presidency through a combination of honesty, integrity, intelligence, and commitment to the United States.
The Philadelphia Mint struck 284,400,000 of the “Birth and Early Childhood” cents, and out west in Colorado, the Denver Mint produced another 350,400,000. Those huge quantities were all made for everyday circulation, in the copper-plated zinc composition that’s been standard since 1982.
In addition, the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints produced 4,564,843 “numismatic” versions of the coins, some with brilliant Proof surfaces and some in a special Satin Finish format. These were made for collectors in the alloy of 95 percent copper originally used in old-time cents.
With more than 634 million Kentucky cents minted for circulation, you might expect these coins to be common—but they’re surprisingly scarce out in the wild. Even a quantity that large is only two coins for every man, woman, and child in the nation. Anyone who owns a roll of them is hoarding the allotment of a couple dozen of his neighbors!
To put it in even sharper perspective: In 2008, the Philadelphia and Denver Mints produced a combined 5.4 billion (with a “b”) Lincoln cents for circulation . . . and in 2007, a total of 7.4 billion.
In comparison, the 2009 Kentucky cents seem like modern-day rarities!
In addition, the coins were faced from the start with unexpected distribution problems, as historian Q. David Bowers recounts in his Guide Book of Lincoln Cents:
The American economy was in recession in 2009, and the Treasury Department was already supplied with many cents. Accordingly, the need for new cents for circulation was much less than it had been earlier, and the mintage was much lower than collectors anticipated. Distribution of the 2009 coins was done by the Federal Reserve System, which placed the coins with banks specifically calling for them. Each of the four designs was launched in sequence, not at the same time. There was no nationwide program to promote collector interest, distribution was widely scattered, and the cents were not easily found in circulation the year of release. Anyone looking to build a set from circulating change was likely to be disappointed.
As Bowers observes, coin collectors missed out—through no fault of their own—on a great opportunity for the hobby to be popularized by this exciting and historic new coinage program.
Today, if you find a 2009 “Birth and Early Childhood” Lincoln cent in your pocket change, count yourself lucky. And set it aside as an uncommon memento of a unique American born in the great state of Kentucky.
Dennis Tucker, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of storage and display supplies, reference books, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Bluegrass State’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Commonwealth’s rich connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts.