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THE FAMILIAR LINCOLN CENT: A MINOR ARTISTIC MASTERPIECE
By Ed Reiter
Americans take the Lincoln cent for granted; often, in fact, they don’t even give it a second glance.
Much of this stems from the coin’s slender value. But, to some extent, there’s also an element of boredom: The cent is so familiar that people seldom take the time to give it a closer look.
If they did, they would make a fascinating discovery: They’d find that despite its low intrinsic value and the equally low esteem in which so many hold it, the Lincoln cent is a coin of classic beauty.
The coin’s design has undergone a number of modifications since its introduction more than a century ago – including the recent revision of its reverse. Some have been subtle and almost imperceptible to the untrained eye: sharpening of the lettering and other design elements, for example. Others have been more dramatic – including the first redesign of the reverse in 1959, when the "wheat ears" of the original gave way to the Lincoln Memorial.
But, through it all, there has been no major change in the coin’s essential element: its simple yet striking portrait of Abraham Lincoln. And that unforgettable portrait, more than anything else, has made this a minor
"That’s one thing that never should be changed," said the late Frank Gasparro, a man who through the years made more than his share of changes in the coin.
In 1958, as a staff sculptor-engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, Gasparro emerged victorious from an in-house competition staged to obtain a new reverse design for the cent. Just as the coin’s original release, in 1909, was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, the redesign was aimed at freshening its appearance for a new set of milestones: the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 50th anniversary of the coin itself.
"There were three of us in the contest," Gasparro recalled in an interview with me many years ago, "and each of us submitted seven designs."
The other entrants were Gilroy Roberts, then the chief engraver of the Mint, and Engelhardus Von Hebel, who, like Gasparro, was an assistant.
"I had a rough time deciding what to show," Gasparro said. "I did a whole series of different designs: a log cabin, an ear of corn, a log with an ax – six designs, in all. But still I wasn’t satisfied.
"Then I got to thinking about Greek coinage, and how there was always a temple on the reverse of a Greek coin. And that gave me the idea of using the Lincoln Memorial.
"Of course," he added, "the Mint had used a building earlier on the Jefferson nickel. And the $5 bill shows Lincoln on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the other.
"But really, it was Greek coinage that served as my inspiration."
By happy coincidence, Gasparro had been born in the very same month – and same city, too – as the Lincoln cent: The coin made its debut on Aug. 2, 1909, and 24 days later the future Mint engraver was born in Philadelphia, site of
the main mint that was striking the coin. He died on Sept. 29, 2001, at the age of 92.
Unlike Gasparro’s Lincoln Memorial design, the original version wasn’t the product of competition. Its creator, Victor D. Brenner, received a commission to do it from President Theodore Roosevelt.
Brenner suggested a Lincoln coin in 1908, while doing Roosevelt’s portrait for the Panama Canal Service medal. He had already fashioned a medal and a plaque to mark the centennial of Lincoln’s birth – and, by his own account, his
mind was "full of Lincoln."
Roosevelt, for his part, had played an active role in fostering new designs for the four U.S. gold coins, and so he was receptive to the young artist’s plan.
It’s clear from Brenner’s original coinage models, and also from his letters, that he was envisioning a Lincoln half dollar, not a cent. The Barber half dollar wasn’t due for replacement, though, for seven years. By contrast, the cent had not been redesigned since 1859, when the Indian Head type was introduced – so, perhaps with that in mind, the Mint channeled Brenner’s efforts in that direction.
Whatever the Mint’s motivation, the cent was the perfect coin for the new design. Lincoln, after all, was a man of simple greatness, and no other coin so nearly matched his image as the humble yet sturdy cent.
It seems surprising now, but in 1909 the Lincoln cent was an innovative – some might even say daring – coin. Up to then, regular-issue U.S. coinage never had depicted a discernible real-life person. Models had been used in some instances – for the Indian Head cent and Morgan silver dollar, for example. But, in those instances, only those directly involved knew who the models were.
Exceptions had been made on commemorative coins; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and William McKinley all had been portrayed on commemoratives in the preceding decade. The Lincoln cent, however, was the first regular U.S. coin to honor a real-life person.
Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln won immediate public acceptance and, through the years, it also has stood the test of time.
Cornelius Vermeule, a noted critic of U.S. coin design, had high praise for Brenner in his much-acclaimed book Numismatic Art in America.
"He has succeeded in conveying the feeling that a photograph of Lincoln has been turned into a three-dimensional experience in metal," the author wrote.
Vermeule was also impressed by the artist’s modest design for the coin’s reverse: two ears of grain flanking a series of inscriptions. This, he said, "took much thought on the part of the artist" and served well as a complement to
the equally simple obverse.
Gasparro’s design has not always fared quite so well with coinage critics. Vermeule, for example, termed the new design "mausoleum-like" and author Don Taxay likened the Lincoln Memorial to a "trolley car."
Though sensitive to criticism, Gasparro took such comments in stride.
"You can never please everyone," he remarked. "When you make a coin design, you do the best you can and just let the chips fall where they may."
Five years later, Gasparro and Roberts collaborated on the design of the Kennedy half dollar, with Roberts doing the Kennedy portrait on the obverse while Gasparro fashioned the presidential seal on the reverse. Then, in 1965,
Gasparro succeeded his mentor as chief engraver – a post he would hold for nearly 16 years before stepping down himself.
Over the years, Gasparro designed many important numismatic artworks. In addition to his work on the cent and half dollar, for example, he also was the designer of the Eisenhower and Anthony dollars.
But, of all his works, the Lincoln Memorial cent always had a special place in his heart.
"That," he said, "was the coin that really established me. After that, numismatists knew my name."
In short, Frank Gasparro was one grateful American who didn’t take the Lincoln cent for granted.