One of the best-known stories about America’s most beloved president is actually about coins. The story goes that, upon closing his general store one evening, Abraham Lincoln discovered that he had inadvertently overcharged a customer. Unwilling to let the error stand even overnight, Lincoln walked miles to the customer’s house to return the change (the amount varies, usually said to be just a few pennies.)
American coins changed relatively little over Lincoln’s lifetime (1809-1865), but the coins were very different from what we have today.
The coins he returned to the customer were probably a mix of half-cents and large cents; when the incident with the customer occurred, likely in 1832, the small coins in circulation were the Classic Head half-cent(1809-1836) and Classic Head (1808-1814) and Coronet large cents (1816-57.) (As American coins are always legal tender, it’s possible that earlier Draped Bust coins were mixed in.)
The Braided Hair half-cent entered circulation later, in 1840. The half-cents of the time were almost as large as modern quarters, and minted in pure copper. Inflation eventually lead to the abandonment of this denomination of coin just before the Civil War.
Large cents were also made of copper, and while useful for transactions, proved to be awkward as pocket change; in addition, copper prices began rising in the 19th century. In 1857, the large cent was replaced in circulation with the Flying Eagle small cent; American pennies have been small in size ever since.
The small cents were introduced with the Flying Eagle cent, which was patterned in 1856 and introduced into circulation in 1857. It was produced until 1858; the Indian Head cent was went into production in 1859. (This design was used for the next 50 years.) The Flying Eagle was known as the “white cent” because of its lighter color due to the new copper-nickel composition.
The year before Lincoln’s death, the Mint issued the two-cent coin, the country’s first and only two-cent denomination piece. This was also the first time the motto “In God We Trust” was used on a coin.
From 1851-1873, a three-cent silver coin was also in circulation; due to the silver content, it was hoarded when war broke out, causing a coin shortage. At that time, the Mint began striking the three-cent coins in copper-nickel.
The half-dime was America’s first five-cent coin, far predating the nickel as we know it today. The half-dimes that Lincoln knew would have been the Capped Bust (produced 1829-1837) and the Seated Liberty (1837-1873), though he likely would have seen some of the Draped Bust half-dimes as a child, since they were produced until just a few years before his birth. Interestingly, Lincoln never saw a nickel; the first American nickels were struck in 1866.
Both Capped Bust (1809-1837) and Liberty Seated (1837-1891) dimes were produced during Lincoln’s lifetime; the dime and half-dime had almost identical designs for most of the 19th century. Until 1964, all dimes in circulation were minted in silver (for more on why silver coinage ceased–and how coin collecting almost became illegal–see this post.)
The quarter, due to its usefulness and size, has always been one of the most popular of all American coins. The Draped Bust design dropped out of production shortly before Lincoln was born, with the Capped Bust design beginning production in 1815. The Seated Liberty quarter followed it, from 1838-1891.
Half dollars were one of the major silver coins in circulation in Lincoln’s day. Again, the Capped Bust (1807-1839) and Seated Liberty (1839-1891) designs would have been familiar to him. Gobrecht dollars (1836-1839), Seated Liberty (1840-1873) and gold Capped Head (1821-1834), Classic Head (1834-1839), and Liberty Head (1849-1854) dollars would also have been in circulation, though not common in daily transactions. A $5 Liberty Head coin was also produced from 1849-1854, but was certainly not used by most citizens at the time.
It’s also likely that some silver pesos were still being used during Lincoln’s childhood and early career. They were accepted as legal tender in America until 1857, and in Canada until 1854.
We cannot know exactly which coins Honest Abe returned to his customer 180 years ago, but we do know the effect Lincoln’s presidency had on our coins. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a new design for the penny for the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. creating the Lincoln cent. It was the first coin to portray a president, and Lincoln’s portrait on the obverse is the longest-running design in US Mint history.