Origins And Firsts In History
An 1888 Indian Head cent.

History of the Penny

An 1888 Indian Head cent.
Allan M. Heller's image for:
"History of the Penny"
Caption: An 1888 Indian Head cent.
Image by:
© Public domain 

For the under-rated and under-appreciated penny, the height of popularity came in 1909, when eager throngs descended on mints and treasury buildings across the country, eager to acquire the newly-issued cent (U.S. Coins Values Advisor). For the first time in the penny's 116-year history, the coin depicted the likeness of a real person: that of 16th president Abraham Lincoln. Previously only animals and allegorical figures graced U.S. coins. Lincoln's distinctive profile was based on a bronze plaque modeled two years earlier by Victor David Brenner. The new penny commemorated the centennial of Lincoln's birth. The reverse featured E Pluribus Unum ("Out of many, one") curved around the top, followed by ONE CENT and underneath UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Flanking the English words on either side was a wheat sheaf, prompting the popular nickname "wheaties."

But Brenner's penny was not without controversy, due not only to the break with long-standing numismatic tradition but also with the conspicuous display of the engraver's initials "V.D.B." at the bottom of the reverse. This some saw as blatant egotism, prompting the removal of the letters until 1918.

In 1959, the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's birth, Frank Gasparro's image of the Lincoln Memorial replaced the pair of wheat sheaves on the penny's reverse. (A tiny image of the statue of Lincoln can be glimpsed from between the sixth and seventh columns of the memorial). This iconic representation held sway for  half a century until four distinct pennies, each with a differing reverse design, were minted to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. Each design represented a different time period in the life of Lincoln: birth and early childhood in Kentucky (1809-1816), formative years in Indiana (1816-1830), professional life in Illinois (1830-1861) and presidency in Washington, D.C. (1861-1865) (U.S. Mint). The following year, the Lincoln Memorial returned to the flip side.

The first U.S. pennies were minted in Philadelphia. These coins were significantly bigger than today's pennies, and rather ponderous. The first obverse image was of a young woman with wild, flowing hair. On the reverse was a circular chain around the words ONE CENT, written as a fraction, with "100" as the denominator. Designed by Henry Voigt, the aptly-named "flowing hair chain cent" was only minted for one year.

The likeness of Lady Liberty on the front underwent numerous revisions during the 60-plus years that the so-called large cent was produced. 1808 saw the most dramatic change: a matronly woman facing to the left instead of the right, and encircled by a ring of six-pointed stars. By 1839 the lady resembled a Greek goddess, with sharp, lean features, braided hair and a fillet bearing the word LIBERTY.

In 1856 came the Flying Eagle Cent, followed by the Indian Head Penny three years later. Both were designed by James Barton Longacre. The latter featured an Indian maiden on the obverse, whose likeness was supposedly based on that of Longacre's daughter. The reverse had the words ONE CENT in the center of a laurel wreath. In 1860 a shield was inserted at the top of the wreath. The Flying Eagles only had a three-year run, and a very limited number, approximately 1,000, were minted in 1856, basically as "pattern coins(U.S. Coins Values Advisor)."

The U.S. penny continues to evolve, the most recent revision coming in 2010. An escutcheon appears on the reverse with the familiar Latin E Pluribus Unum across the top, and a banner bearing the words ONE CENT superimposed across the bottom. Abraham Lincoln remains on the obverse.

Although the United States hasn't minted a pure copper penny in over 154 years, copper remained the dominant metal in the one-cent coin since the penny's appearance in 1793. In 1982 this changed when the intrinsic value of the copper used in production exceeded the value of the actual penny, and for the past three decades, pennies have consisted of mostly zinc, with a copper veneer.

In 1943, copper was needed for the war effort, so pennies were minted from steel and coated with zinc. A few copper pennies were produced, and are worth a significant amount today.

Works Cited

United States Mint. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

Americans for Common Cents. Web. 2 Dec. 2011.

U.S. Coin Values Advisor. Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

More about this author: Allan M. Heller

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