A Lincoln Cent-ennial
by Ed Reiter
Fivescore years ago, the United States Mint brought forth a new one-cent piece dedicated to the proposition that a real, instantly identifiable person could appear on an everyday U.S. coin.
The person was Abraham Lincoln, the coin was the Lincoln cent – and 100 years later, hardly anyone remembers ever seeing a different U.S. cent in pocket change.
Hundreds of billions of Lincoln cents have poured into circulation since the very first batch rolled off the presses at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints in August 1909. This now ubiquitous “penny” has been minted in greater numbers than any other coin in history; in fact, its total output exceeds the combined mintages of all other coins ever made.
Collectors and consumers alike take the Lincoln cent for granted today – but when it first appeared, it was considered quite revolutionary. Up to then, no regular-issue U.S. coin ever had carried the portrait of a real-life historical figure. Models had posed for allegorical portraits of Liberty, but they were simply accessories.
There had been a handful of low-mintage commemorative coins with likenesses of actual individuals, including Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and William McKinley, but extension of such honor to the nation’s regular coinage was viewed as a dramatic departure from tradition at the time.
The tradition dated back to 1792, the year the Mint was founded, when President Washington firmly rejected widespread calls for the placement of his portrait on the nation’s first coins, deeming that to be a monarchical vestige ill-suited for a newborn democracy.
Over the years, the Lincoln cent has helped spawn a succession of other U.S. coins featuring famous Americans, including the reluctant George Washington. One by one, likenesses of Liberty (and one anonymous Indian chief on the much-loved Buffalo nickel) have given way to visages of presidents and other historical figures.
The Mint introduced the Washington quarter in 1932, the Jefferson nickel in 1938, the Roosevelt dime in 1946, the Franklin half dollar in 1948, the Kennedy half dollar in 1964, the Eisenhower dollar in 1971, the Susan B. Anthony dollar in 1979 and the Sacagawea dollar in 2000. The last of these honors the young Shoshone woman who provided important assistance to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
The “portrait gallery” seems inevitable today, having been absorbed into the public consciousness for decades. But getting even one such coin in change from a neighborhood merchant would have startled shoppers at the turn of the 20th century – as indeed the Lincoln cent did in the summer of 1909.
As the new millennium unfolds, there are those who contend the time has come to take U.S. coin design in a new direction – away from the almost photographic quality of the present coinage lineup and perhaps to an updated version of the more artistic symbolism seen on our earlier money.
Calls for redesign of circulating U.S. coins reached a crescendo in the late 1980s before fading away in the face of congressional indifference. Leaders of this crusade argued that our coinage had grown stagnant, sterile and dull because the existing designs – more utilitarian than artistic to begin with – had been around too long and lost any freshness they might have possessed at one time.
Welcome variety was introduced in 1999 when the Mint began issuing special Washington quarters spotlighting the 50 states of the Union. These circulating commemoratives continued to appear at the rate of five per year through 2008. The obverse (or “heads” side) of the quarter still depicts George Washington, however – even as the Mint proceeds with still more new designs on the reverse, this time honoring the District of Columbia, U.S. territorial possessions and, down the line, national parks.
Some, in fact, maintain that these and other ongoing series, such as those on the presidential dollars and the Westward Journey Jefferson nickels a few years ago, will delay the implementation of truly meaningful – and more artistic – overall redesign of U.S. coinage portraiture.
Perhaps the most difficult obstacle standing in the path of such redesign is the real political risk confronting any legislator or bureaucrat brave enough to champion this cause. As a Washington insider observed when the topic first gained broad support two decades ago, “no one wants to be known as the person who got Abe Lincoln removed from the cent.”
Lincoln’s place on the cent seems secure. The future of the cent itself is another matter. Economic considerations – especially rising metal costs – could lead in time to discontinuation of this denomination, with prices being rounded up or (less likely) down to the nearest nickel. Realistically, that appears to be the only way “Honest Abe” will ever lose his place on the humble coin.
Short of that, the longest-running coin in U.S. history will just keep extending its record. But then, after fivescore years, hardly anyone’s complaining that Lincoln is running up the score.
Ed Reiter is senior editor of COINage and executive director of the Numismatic Literary Guild. Reiter wrote weekly numismatic columns in the Sunday New York Times for nearly a decade.