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The one-cent coin, known as the penny, gained that popular name after the British penny. It was one of the first coins issued by the U.S. Mint after its establishment, with the Coinage Act of 1792, signed by George Washington.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, has been featured on the penny since its debut in 1909 and remains unchanged to this day.
Abraham Lincoln was the first real person to ever appear in a US circulating coin. In 1909, the US Mint released the Lincoln pennies in honor of his 100th birthday. The obverse features the portrait of Abraham Lincoln designed by Victor David Brenner.
The Lincoln penny's predecessor, the Indian Head Cent, was issued in 1859 and remained in use for half a century before giving way to the Lincoln Cent in 1909.
Read more about Indian Head Cent values in our article.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, Lincoln successfully waged a political struggle and civil war that preserved the Union and ended slavery. He created the possibility of civil and social freedom for African-Americans and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
In honor of his 100th birthday, Lincoln became the first president in American history to be featured on US Mint coins. The Lincoln cent obverse showed the Lincoln effigy designed by Victor David Brenner, which is still used to this day.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, "A strong feeling had prevailed against using portraits on US coins, but public sentiment stemming from the 100th-anniversary celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birth proved stronger than the long-standing prejudice”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered Lincoln the savior of the Union, the greatest Republican President. Roosevelt also considered himself Lincoln's political heir.
The image on the first cent was of a lady with flowing hair, which came to be known as Lady Liberty. The design for the first penny was suggested by Benjamin Franklin. The coin was larger and made of pure copper, while today’s once-cent coins are made of copper-plated zinc.
In 1857, the Mint made the copper cents smaller and mixed the copper with nickel, following orders from Congress. The cent displayed a flying eagle on the front and a wreath on the back.
Until 1857, all cent coins were larger than today's pieces. The Large Cent was nearly the size of a Half Dollar.
Since 1983, all pennies produced for circulation in the United States have a zinc core that is coated with a thin layer of copper.
Read more about penny compositions in our article "What pennies are made of"?
Lincoln's portrait was introduced on the obverse of the penny in 1909. The first reverse design was of two wheat stalks separated by the words "One Cent" and the name of the country, United States of America. That was also known as the Lincoln Wheat Penny.
Check our complete list of Wheat Penny values.
While the obverse still carries the Lincoln portrait, the reverse designs have gone through a few changes with time.
The Secretary of the Treasury, for example, has the authority to alter the percentage of copper and zinc in the one-cent coin if needed due to cost fluctuations.
The new coins, the first Lincoln penny reverse, featured an image of wheat surrounding the words “One Cent” and “The United States of America.”
This is known as the “Wheat Penny.”
During World War II in 1943, copper pennies were replaced with steel ones that were coated with zinc, as a part of the war effort.
During that year, copper was excluded from the penny minting process and allocated for the production of ammunition. This led to the creation of zinc-coated steel cents, which were produced only once in history.
The Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints each produced the 1943 Lincoln Steel cents.
On December 21, 1958, President Eisenhower issued a press release announcing that a new reverse design for the cent would begin production on January 2, 1959.
The new reverse portrayed an image of the Lincoln Memorial, designed by Frank Gasparro (who later became the Mint's Chief Engraver), to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. The new design replaced the Wheat Ears that appeared on the reverse of the Lincoln Cent since 1909.
In 2009, the United States Mint issued four different pennies as part of the Lincoln Bicentennial One-Cent Program. The program recognized not only the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday but also the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, first appearing in 1909.
The themes on the reverses represent the four major aspects of Lincoln’s life:
- Birth and Early Childhood in Kentucky (1809-1816)
- Formative Years in Indiana (1816-1830)
- Professional Life in Illinois (1830-1861)
- Presidency in Washington, D.C. (1861-1865)
The circulating version of these coins uses the same metal content as other modern cents (2.5 percent copper, the rest zinc). The uncirculated version contains the metals used in the original 1909 cent (95 percent copper, 5 percent tin, and zinc).
With the exception of 2009 bicentennial cents minted specifically for collectors, United States cents minted after 1982 have been zinc with copper plating.
The new 2010 Shield Cent design was first unveiled to the public on November 12, 2009.
The reverse shows a Shield that has the words E PLURIBUS UNUM inscribed, which represents the Union. The 13 stripes on the shield represent the 13 original states. The bar across the top represents Congress and the federal government.
Above the shield design, it displays a scroll with the words ONE CENT, and the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA are elegantly arched above the shield.
In 2017, the “P” mark appeared for the first time on circulating pennies. 2017 is the only year that Philadelphia cents received this mark in honor of the U.S. Mint’s 225th anniversary.
Did you know some of the most valuable pennies contain mint errors? Check out our article on Penny Errors to look for.
Obverse design: President Abraham Lincoln featured since 1909.
Inscriptions: LIBERTY, IN GOD WE TRUST, Year, and the mint mark below it.
Designer: Victor D. Brenner
Reverse design: It features a union shield design with 13 stripes and the national motto in a horizontal bar above. A banner drapes across the front. First issued in 2010 and emblematic of Lincoln's preservation of the United States as a single and united country.
Reverse Inscriptions: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, E PLURIBUS UNUM, ONE CENT.
Sculptor: Joseph Menna, Medallic Artist
Designer: Lyndall Bass
Mint: Denver, Philadelphia
The Lincoln penny is now the longest-running design in United States Mint history. These small cents were the first time a coin featured a historical figure in the US, which made it stand out from other circulating coins.
The Lincoln one cent was also the first U.S. cent to include the words “In God We Trust." All of that makes this piece one of the most collected American coins.
Who was on the penny before Lincoln?
The penny featured an image of an Indian Head on the obverse, with a wreath on the reverse from 1859 to 1909, immediately preceding Abraham Lincoln. The Indian Head cent, designed by James B. Longacre, was composed of copper and nickel, and was the first U.S. cent to feature a Native American image. However, the coin's popularity eventually waned, leading to its replacement with the iconic image of Lincoln in 1909.
Why is Abraham Lincoln only on the penny?
Abraham Lincoln is featured on the penny because he is considered one of the most important and iconic figures in American history. His presidency, which spanned from 1861 to 1865, was marked by the Civil War and his efforts to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. He is also highly regarded for his oratory skills, leadership qualities, and his tragic assassination. Therefore, he was selected to be featured on the penny in 1909 to honor his legacy.