Lincoln Cent – From the VDB Controversy through Today
Although a 100+ year veteran of the US Mint today (the 2009 cent marks 100 years), the Lincoln Cent had one of the most controversial beginnings of all coins produced in the United States. “The V.D.B. Controversy,” as David Bowers describes it in his excellent book: A Guidebook of Lincoln Cents starts with Victor David Brenner (V.D.B), the artist who was commissioned to design the Lincoln Cent.
Brenner was a skilled sculptor, and like many, desired acknowledgement of his work. He was chosen to design the new cent in part because of the work he completed for President Roosevelt. Brenner’s original design displayed his full last name on the reverse of the coin – an unusual element by US standards, but quite common on the coins of other countries. This of course was unacceptable for the Mint and was subsequently reduced to his initials, V.D.B. – more in line with coins of the time and even common today.
The coin was released on August 2, 1909 with just V.D.B.; however, his initials were quite a bit larger than those of previous designers. They were also embossed, making them stand out prominently on the wheat backed reverse. The new “ Penny VDB “ became an instant success. On the first day of its release, coin collectors were hoarding the cent. In the streets, the 1909 VDB cent was being bought and sold for 3 cents each or two for a nickel (what a bargain), immediately after its release. There was just one problem . . .
Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh allegedly never studied the coin before its release. When he found Victor David Brenner’s V.D.B initials displayed in plain sight on the reverse, Penny VDB was in for an immediate change. On August 5, 1909, just three days after its introduction to the world, MacVeagh stopped minting the 1909 VBD. Rumors of a recall abounded, creating a frenzy for the coin. In total there were 27,995,000 1909 VDB cents minted, and only 484,000 1909-S VDBs, making the latter one of the most sought after collector coins of all time.
Before we move on:
10 Fun Facts about the 1909 VDB
- Victor David Brenner was born Viktoras Barnauskas;
- Before its release, the Los Angeles Times mistakenly gave credit for the design of the Lincoln Cent to the Mint’s Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber;
- In 1909, it cost $1840 to mint 1,000,000 cents, yielding a profit to the US Government of over $8,000 per million pennies;
- The obverse of the Lincoln Cent was modeled after a bronze plaque of Lincoln created by Brenner in 1907;
- Originally, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to redesign the entire offering of the US Mint, but he passed away before designing the cent coin;
- The 1909 cent was commissioned to mark the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth;
- Most coins display the designer’s initials, but normally they cannot be observed clearly without magnification. Victor David Brenner’s initials can easily be seen with the naked eye on the reverse of 1909 VDB cent;
- Charles E. Barber, the Mint’s Chief Engraver did not regard the coin as successful and did not want even a single small initial “B” to be placed on the coin for fear people would confuse Brenner’s work with his own. After being taken out of commission on August 5, the coin was re-released on August 12, 1909 without any initials whatsoever;
- Charles Barber passed away on February 18, 1917. With Barber gone the VDB was restore to the coin in 1918, this time on the obverse in tiny letters on Lincoln’s shoulder, where it remains today;
- The Philadelphia mint does not put its “P” on coins, therefore the Mint-less 1909 VDB was minted in Philadelphia.
With the restoration of the VDB on the obverse in 1918, there was very little in the way of change to the coin for a number of years. That was until World War II. As we entered the war, munitions supplies were starting to run low because of a shortage of raw material. The main material to make a bullet casing, brass, was becoming more difficult to acquire. Brass, which is a composition of 63% copper and 37% zinc is largely the same metal composition as a penny, which was 95% copper and 5% zinc and tin. With the war in full swing, the US Government made a decision to manufacture steel cents, and in 1943 began production. The coins were made of steel with a 0.00025 inch thick zinc coat.
Unfortunately the steel cent was difficult to manufacture because of the hardness of the metal used in its production. To add to this, the coin became spotty quickly. As of January 1, 1944 the Lincoln cent was back to largely its original composition but without the tin component – 95% copper, 5% zinc.
In 1959, the reverse was changed from the Wheat Back to the Lincoln Memorial. The new reverse, designed by Frank Gasparro, remained in existence until the 2009 cent came into existence (discussed further below).
In 1960, a small date Lincoln cent design was released.
In 1982, the composition was changed back to 95% copper and 5% zinc and tin as it had been before the introduction of the steel cent in 1943.
In 2009, four different reverses were introduced. The reverses on the 2009 cent were put in place to commemorate the 200-year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
In 2010, a new reverse was introduced. This coin, designed by Lyndall Bass displays a Union Shield in the center, with E PLURIBUS UNUM across the top of the shield, and ONE CENT across the center. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA was shown on the inside circumference of the top.
Key Dates – Number Minted
1909-S VDB – (0.5 million)
1909-S – (1.8 million)
1914-D – (1.2 million)
1922 – Denver Mint with no mint mark – (volume unknown)
1931-S – (0.9 million)
If you’d like to know more about the fascinating history of the Lincoln cent, see a Guide Book of Lincoln Cents in our book review section.