In 1787, the penny was created in response to the need for coinage that was uniquely American (see our previous blog). Americans wanted to stray from the use of European coinage with its different appearance, weights and value. Flash forward to the early 1900’s and we find ourselves in competition with European coinage once again. The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, felt all US coins were lacking in their artistic qualities. An avid art connoisseur, Roosevelt wanted US coins to more closely match the artistic flair of their European counterparts.
A recent law requiring all coin designs be in circulation for at least 25 years was in effect. This meant the only coins up for redesign were the 4 gold pieces in use at the time and the penny. Roosevelt hired his friend, Augustus St. Gaudens for the redesign. Augustus favored a design with either an eagle in flight or lady liberty, but unfortunately passed away before any of his designs were submitted. He did successfully redesign the $20 gold piece, called the double eagle (see below).
After St. Gaudens’ death, Roosevelt turned to Victor David Brenner. He admired a bronze plaque Brenner had done of Abraham Lincoln and although there had never been a US coin created with a historical figure on it, Roosevelt couldn’t resist capturing his fellow Republican on a coin. It came as perfect timing, really. America was about to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and Lincoln memorabilia was in high demand. In January 1909, Brenner was officially hired for the redesign.
In March 1909, satisfied with his design, Brenner met with mint chief engraver, Charles Barber. Barber was less than impressed with the initial design. Although artistic, it still had to be mint-able and that was Barber’s chief concern. He also didn’t like the idea of outsourcing the job to someone who only had experience as a sculptor. After a lot of back and forth between Brenner, Barber and Mint Director Frank A. Leach, a design was finally agreed upon and the first Lincoln Cent hit the presses.
On August 2 1909, the first Lincoln cents were available to the public. The coin had a profile view of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse with the words “In God We Trust” filling in the space above his head. The reverse featured 2 wheat ears framing the words “One Cent” and “United States of America.” On the very bottom of the reverse, were the initials V.D.B for the man who created the design.
Because of the built up anticipation of this coin and the fact that it had Lincoln on it, the coin was wildly popular with the public. The day it was released, people stood in long lines at the various treasuries just waiting to get their hands on the freshly minted coins. There was such demand that they ended up rationing the coins they handed out that day. People in line at the New York Treasury could get up to 100 coins at a time and people at the Philadelphia Treasury were only allowed 2. Many people then took these newly minted coins to the secondary market and ended up making a profit, selling them for up to 25 cents per coin in some areas.
The hype was short lived and things returned to normal in a matter of days. That is until rumors started circulating that Victor David Brenner was trying to make a name for himself by putting his initials V.D.B on the back of the coin, in rather large printing. The legality of this move was even called into question as some called it advertising, which is not allowed on coins. All production was halted on August 5 until a new design could be made with out the initials.
Although a compromise was finally struck and minting started back up on August 18, the controversy remained. What started out as a simple attempt to make a pretty coin and keep up with the Europeans had turned into a rather ugly battle between artist and engraver. Stay tuned to find out what the compromise looked like and how it affected the Lincoln cent in the weeks and months to come.