Every productive graduate of the United States of America’s public school system knows what today is: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. This particular February 12th is a special one, because it also commemorates the 200th anniversary of his birth. Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and grew up in Illinois — in both cases, living very rural pioneer’s life, in what was the westernmost reaches of the United States at the time. So the story goes, despite his humble start, Lincoln was educated, eloquent, and measured in his leadership, making him one of the most endearing and respected presidents in history. A few summers ago, my family visited a Civil War reenactment, and a tall, lanky gentleman was sporting the Lincoln costume of a top hat and a beard, posting for pictures and handing out pennies to children. Our youngest — who had already claimed Lincoln as his favorite president ever — was absolutely amazed that he could get a picture with Lincoln, but then take home a tiny copper disk with Lincoln’s image on it…a monetary gift from the spirit of Lincoln himself.
When Lincoln was young, of course, pennies didn’t have his picture on them; that would have made things more difficult for the young lad. The copper penny was actually the very first coin authorized by the government to be produced by the U.S. Mint. As we’ve seen before, the U.S. had a difficult time fixing its currency through the first half of the 19th century, so numerous varied designs appeared during Lincoln’s youth. The Mint stuck mostly with classically-Greek women’s profiles, but the coin was much larger than today. These “large cents” were either 27mm or 29mm, or almost as large as the current half-dollar coin. Small cents came into use shortly before Lincoln was elected president. In 1857, the Mint began producing “flying eagle” pennies, at the current penny size. Minting problems, however, were aggravated by design problems with the flying eagle, so in 1859 one of the most famous coins of the 19th century first appeared: the Indian Head penny.
The Indian Head penny was the standard cent for fifty years, from just before Lincoln’s election, to the 100th anniversary of his birth. In 1909, a new penny was introduced into circulation as part of President Teddy Roosevelt’s ambitious currency redesign. New York engraver Victor D Brenner, a Lithuanian Russian immigrant, was selected based on his previous work for Roosevelt. The design was a hit, and Brenner’s design has remained in use for a hundred years, an amazing amount of time for a single coin’s obverse.
One consistent design feature of the penny, even going back to the large-cent period, was a wreath on the reverse. Each wreath was a little different, varying forms and foliage, but consistently round, with the coin’s value in the center. The Lincoln Cent had a wreath of wheat stalks on the back, earning them the nickname “wheatstraw pennies”. In 1959, however, the obverse design was changed — commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Mint engraver Frank Gasparro produced a design depicting the Lincoln Memorial. The Memorial had been built about 37 years before, and was a excellent pair to match Jefferson’s Monticello on the reverse of the 20-year-old nickel design.
As of today, however, the Memorial has been exchanged for a new design, to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th. Four designs, in fact, are being issued, each depicting a different period in Lincoln’s life: one depicting a log cabin of his youth; a young Lincoln reading a book representing his life in Indiana, a Lincoln participating in the Indiana Legislature; and the construction of the Capitol representing his presidency. Three of the designs will start appearing in the next several months, but today the Log Cabin Penny is available from the Mint. For a hundred years, the penny has been a symbol of one of our greatest presidents, and this new series intends to further express our affinity for his life and works, with these commemorative designs.