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By Ed Reiter

Little things can make a big difference.

If coin collectors had any doubt about that, they were set straight 50 years ago, when an itsy-bitsy difference on certain 1960 Lincoln cents triggered a nationwide scavenger hunt and turned their hobby on its head.

The coins were the so-called “small-date” Lincoln cents, whose date was slightly – but noticeably – smaller than that on the great majority of “pennies” that year.

They were the numismatic equivalent of Chesterfield 101 cigarettes, whose TV commercials boasted that they were a “silly millimeter” longer – and therefore presumably better – than their competitors. These cents caused a clamor because their date was ever so slightly smaller.

The key, of course, was that the small-date cents not only had smaller dates, but also were much scarcer. That made them more desirable, collectible – and valuable. Before the year was over, they attracted many thousands of newcomers to the coin collecting hobby. Indeed, they were probably the single biggest factor in the hobby’s dramatic growth during that period.

Looking back, the frenzy might seem like a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. But, at the time, the coins stirred enormous interest – not only among collectors, but also beyond the realm of coins.

The small-date cents were the first to be struck at the start of 1960, and initially no one thought they were unusual. The fact is, people didn’t start using the expression “small date” until after the release of the large-date cents – for up to then, they didn’t have a basis for comparison. To draw an analogy, the Great War didn’t become known as World War I until the onset of World War II.

Production of cents was unusually low during the first two months of 1960 – especially at the main mint in Philadelphia. The most logical explanation is that it had been so high the year before, when the Philadelphia Mint and the Denver branch combined to make almost 2 billion cents – a near-record total at the time.

The abnormally high mintage of 1959 cents stemmed in large measure from the fact that those were the first to carry the new reverse design depicting the Lincoln Memorial, so public demand for the coins was higher than usual. In any case, large inventories remained on hand at the start of 1960, greatly reducing the need for additional supplies of new cents.

Even with low production levels, the 1960 cents drew little attention at first. Then, in March, sharp-eyed collectors noticed an odd difference when production began in earnest and the large-date variety first appeared. Clearly, these new arrivals were struck with different dies.

There wouldn’t have been much excitement if both cent varieties were common and easy to find. But it soon became clear that the small-date examples were scarce. It also seemed obvious that no more small-date cents were being struck. All of the shipments produced in March and afterward consisted exclusively of large-date coins.

Before long, hobby publications – and general-interest newspapers, as well – were telling their readers about these scarce new cents. People started looking for them everywhere, but few, it seems, had entered circulation. Almost all of them were intercepted – especially in Philadelphia – by dealers and speculators who grabbed up rolls and even bags of the coins.

Soaring interest led to soaring prices. Philadelphia small-date cents were rising in value so rapidly, in fact, that most dealers didn’t even price them in their ads. Instead, the ads said simply “POR” (price on request).

Although exact mintages can’t be determined, it’s estimated that only about 2 million small-date cents – including some proofs – were made in Philadelphia, out of a total of 588 million P-mint cents. In Denver, production of both varieties was significantly higher: It’s believed that there were approximately 100 million small-date Denver cents out of the total overall figure of almost 1.6 billion.

The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, one of the major hobby periodicals of the day, questioned Mint Director William H. Brett about the situation. Brett issued a statement that might have been well-intentioned, but clearly was off the mark.

“All U.S. one-cent (1960) production stamping dies were forged from the same master hub containing the 1960 date element,” Brett stated. “No change was made.”

In hindsight, that just wasn’t true.

Exactly what did happen? Some theorized that the Mint had stopped production and retooled the 1960 cent dies because one or more numbers in the date had become clogged. Others suggested that Mint employees had arranged the switch for private gain.

Neither of those theories was correct, according to Frank Gasparro, who was chief sculptor-engraver at the Mint from 1965 to 1981. Gasparro was a Mint staff engraver in 1960 and got a firsthand look at the circumstances leading to creation of the two cent varieties. He shared those observations in an interview with me following his retirement.

At the start of every year, Gasparro noted, Mint technicians follow a series of procedures in preparing new dies for the various coins. The first step is to take the master hub and create a master die. Hubs are pieces of steel that impart designs to dies – and master dies are made from master hubs. On a hub, a design appears exactly as it will look on the coin itself; a die bears a mirror image of the design and the image is restored to its original form when a coin is struck with the die.

At the start of production in1960, a Mint engraver took out the master cent hub dated 1959, removed the “5” and “9” from the previous year’s date and made a master die from the master hub. At that point, the master die bore only the first two numbers (“19”) from the date. The engraver added a “6” and a “0,” cutting the numbers into the steel by hand. He then used the master die to make a working hub and used the hub, in turn, to make working dies.

Gasparro, who was there, said there wasn’t any problem with clogging. What happened, he said, was that early in the year, the working hub cracked while it was being used to make more working dies. A technician then had to pull out the master die and make a new working hub. And at that crucial point, an error of omission occurred.

Normally, Gasparro explained, technicians would have prepared a second master die – a backup – from the working hub. But in 1960, because of production pressures, they hadn’t taken this precaution. As a result, they had no choice but to use the original master die. Because the “6” and “0” had been cut into that master die by hand, those numbers had to be sharpened before the master die could be used again.

The differences between the small- and large-date Lincoln cents can be seen at a glance – especially in the “6,” which has a much shorter stem in the small-date version.

At their market peak in the early 1960s, small-date 1960-P cents were selling for close to $500 a roll, or $10 per coin, in mint condition. As 2009 drew to a close, they were bringing between $150 and $200 a roll, or $3 to $4 per coin. That’s still a nice return for anyone lucky enough to have put aside some of these coins at or near face value.

Most important, though, the small-date cents were a very big shot in the arm for the hobby as a whole, accelerating growth already well under way.

And there’s nothing penny-ante about that.