The Many Reverses of the Lincoln Penny

By  Jamie Cooper

In the 1850s, would anyone have thought that the likeness of an American president would be put on a common coin and that said president would not be one of the Founding Fathers? Probably not. Up until that point in time a president had never been featured on an American coin. During Lincoln’s presidency, the one cent coin the public was accustomed to seeing and using had Liberty wearing a headdress on it.

This coin, first minted in 1857, is commonly referred to as the Indian Head Cent and was minted until 1909.  At the end of its minting, the U.S. Treasury decided to honor President Lincoln’s centennial birthday by putting his image on the obverse (front side) of the one cent coin. The reverse (backside) of the coin featured two wheat stalks and was, therefore, called the Wheat Penny. The penny design, which features a bust of Lincoln facing to the right, is still in circulation, making it the longest continuous minted coin in American history.

The Wheat Penny design remained virtually unchanged until 1959, but the coin’s color did change. In 1943, the copper coin was produced as a zinc plated steel penny. The Steel Penny, as it was called, came into existence during WWII because of the shortage of copper in America. It was only minted for one year before the Treasury went back to producing the traditional copper penny.

In 1959, the Wheat Penny’s reverse side was changed. This time the change was to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The design featured the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse side of the coin and is the most commonly recognized penny today.

Within the last two years, there has been an explosion of new penny designs being minted. In 2009 alone, four different designs to commemorate the bicentennial birthday of President Lincoln were released. The first design, Issue #1, features a Log Cabin on the reserve side. It represents the birth and early childhood years of Lincoln in Kentucky. Issue #2 portrays Lincoln reading a book while sitting on a recently split rail. Representing Lincoln’s formative years in Indiana, this Issue depicts Lincoln’s eagerness to learn. Issue #3 shows Lincoln’s professional life in Illinois as a lawyer and statesman by depicting him standing in front of the Illinois State Capitol building. Issue #4 honors Lincoln’s time as the President of the United States. The symbolism of the unfinished Capitol Dome, on #4, is symbolic of the young nation’s struggle during the Civil War.

At the start of 2010, the penny underwent its latest change. To honor the sesquicentennial election victory of President Lincoln, the Union Shield was added to the reverse side of the penny, taking the place of the Lincoln Memorial. This will be a permanent change to the coin. The Shield was chosen for its symbolism of national unity. What better time for such a powerful statement than on the eve of the Civil War sesquicentennial.

The penny has survived the test of time and is now adapting to the future. The President Lincoln’s Cottage Museum Store currently stocks every coin described above, along with 3” replicas of the 1909 Victor David Brenner penny and the 1972 Lincoln Memorial penny. The coins are excellent gifts for history lovers and coin collectors alike and can be purchased onsite and online. Consider supporting President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Lincoln legacy by visiting President Lincoln’s Cottage and making a purchase in the Museum Store.

To visit the online store click here.

Mr. Cooper is the Sr. Visitor Services Associate and manages the Museum Store at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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