Collecting Lincoln cents from circulation and putting them in blue Whitman folders is the way that most people discovered numismatics from the 1930s down to the 1970s or so. The hope was to find a rare 1909-S V.D.B. or 1914-D Lincoln cent. By the 1970s most cents in circulation were of the Lincoln Memorial reverse type. Older cents called “wheaties” were mostly removed from circulation and were worth two cents each in large wholesale lots. Today, “wheaties” are hardly ever seen. The only hope of finding a valuable cent is the 1969-S Doubled Die, an obscure variety that has not inspired many people to search.
Among older Lincoln cents there are two that are very historical and very affordable. The first is the 1909-V.D.B. cent from the Philadelphia Mint. The second is the 1943 zinc-coated steel cent made at the three mints.
As to the birth of the Lincoln cent, this week I give a few comments:
President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens, America’s most famous sculptor, to redesign all circulating coins from the cent to the double eagle. In failing health the sculptor created designs for just the $10 and $20 that were made in coinage form. In 1908 the $2.50 and $5 were redesigned to the Indian Head type by Bela Lyon Pratt. Then it was the cent’s turn
On January 30, 1909, a note was sent 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.
Subsequently, Director Frank A. Leach wrote to The Numismatist:
Nothing has yet been decided upon in relation to the proposed issue of a coin bearing the head of Lincoln. The matter is only under discussion.
However, by this time models had been submitted to the Engraving Department at the Philadelphia Mint, and the staff was busy at work on a new coin, not yet identified as being of the cent denomination. Originally a reverse was proposed featuring a design with a single sprig in the center, inspired by the French two-franc piece. Another idea proposed the standing figure of Miss Liberty, also modeled after a French coin. These were rejected, and a reverse depicting two symmetrically-arranged wheat stalks was used, these being stylistic and modern, rather than from nature.
The March 1909 issue of the same periodical told of progress, under the title of “Lincoln to Appear on Cent.” It was revealed that “several months may pass before the long familiar Indian cent will be displaced by a proposed new issue which will have for its main device the head of Lincoln. The designs for the coins are the product of Victor D. Brenner, and since their acceptance, Mr. Brenner has been kept very busy making the suggested, slight but time-consuming changes. . .”
The dies were cut by Henry Weil, of New York, using Brenner’s models. Brenner was a well-known sculptor and, I believe, was the first designer of a federal coin to be a member of the American Numismatic Society.
The July issue of the same magazine noted:
Coinage of the Lincoln cent has been in progress at the Philadelphia Mint for some time. The number of one-cent pieces coined in June, 22,213,575, are believed all to be of the new type. No advance coinage of the Lincoln cent has been made at any of the branch mints. It is not believed that any of the specimens, except a very few for inspection by government officials, have left the custody of the chief coiner.
The final mintage was 27,995,000. At the San Francisco Mint, 484,000 were struck
On August 2, 1909, the first Lincoln cents were released into circulation. A mad dash ensued, and all available pieces were quickly scooped up. In the same month The Numismatist related:
Notwithstanding the advance coinage, the demand for them in Philadelphia was so great that only a limited distribution was made to an individual. Banks were supplied with a portion of their order; at the mint two specimens only to a customer; at the Sub-Treasury 100 was the most anyone could purchase.
Newsboys and others, taking advantage of the interest in the new coin, obtained them in hundred lots and found customers at from 2 for 5 cents to 25 cents each.
All was not well with the new cents. Although this was not heralded in publicity, in honor of the designer the initials V.D.B. were visible at the bottom of the reverse for all to see. Soon a controversy arose concerning the initials. Some said that as Brenner had been paid for his design, what he did was strictly as a workman, and no recognition was needed. Others said that the letters were too prominent, and that few knew what the possibly cabalistic notation meant.
Complaints were registered, and demands were made that the letters be dropped. All of this defied numismatic tradition, for in 1907 Augustus Saint-Gaudens boldly signed his new $20 piece with his ASG monogram in the obverse field. As far back as the days of ancient Greece, artists had signed their names to dies, sometimes in full, as with KIMON on certain silver decadrachms of Syracuse. Within memory, James B. Longacre’s initials, J.B.L., appeared on nearly all of the gold coins of the second half of the 19th century, continuing to 1907-1908.
The Mint bowed to these complaints and removed the V.D.B. initials. Today, the Philadelphia Mint 1909 V.D.B. coins are readily available in any and all grades from well-worn to gem Mint State, the last usually with original orange color, either full or partial. Luster varies from frosty to matte. We are all fortunate that this very short-lived type, certainly one of the greatest “story coins” in American numismatics, is the most affordable of all early Lincoln cents. There should be room for one in every collection, as this is at once a landmark coin and inexpensive.
In contrast, the 1909-S V.D.B. cents are rare and expensive—well worth owning, of course, but more in the realm of the Lincoln cent specialist.
 Apparently, the final decision to use the cent denomination was made in March, per the Report of the Director of the Mint, 1909: “New Design for the One-Cent Piece: With the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury the new design for the bronze one-cent piece was adopted in April 1909. On the obverse, the head of Lincoln appears instead of the Indian head which this piece had borne since 1864. The engraver of the mint at Philadelphia was instructed to prepare dies, and coinage of this piece was commenced in May. . .”