What does a Wheat penny look like? If you’ve recently come across an old penny and noticed a design featuring wheat ears on the reverse, you’re holding a historical piece of currency called the wheat penny. These iconic one-cent coins were minted during the early and mid-1900s and feature unique designs that make them easily distinguishable from modern pennies.

Here’s a quick answer: Wheat pennies feature images of wheat ears and bundles on the reverse side of the coin. Minted from 1909 to 1958, wheat pennies mark the first appearance of President Lincoln’s image on the obverse side of penny denominations.

The coin’s reverse features two iconic styles: the VDB and non-VDB pennies.

Key Details and Design Elements of Wheat Pennies

The Lincoln Wheat Ears Reverse Design

The most iconic design element of wheat pennies is the wheat stalks on the reverse side. The central images depict two wheat heads in profile, with the words “ONE CENT” inscribed at the top and a ribbon with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” at the bottom.

This agricultural motif pays homage to Abraham Lincoln’s humble roots as a farmer in Illinois.

The wheat design was the work of artist Victor D. Brenner, who based it on his original Lincoln cent pattern from 1909. He chose wheat as a symbol of prosperity, in keeping with Lincoln’s vision for the American economy.

The wheat ears are a classic, visually pleasing image that gave the coins a new nickname – wheat pennies or wheat cents.

VDB and Non-VDB Wheat Pennies

Early wheat cents minted in 1909 and 1910 bear the designer’s initials “VDB” (for Victor David Brenner) on the reverse, at the bottom between the wheat stalks and ribbon. However, there was controversy over this as placing the initials was deemed too conspicuous.

The Treasury Department ordered the initials removed in mid-1910. So wheat pennies exist in both VDB and non-VDB formats for those early date ranges. Key dates like the 1909 VDB and 1909-S VDB are more scarce and popular with collectors.

Mint Marks

Wheat cents were produced at three different U.S. mints – Philadelphia (no mint mark), Denver (D mint mark), and San Francisco (S mint mark). This allows for a range of mint mark varieties to be collected for a given date.

For example, the 1931 wheat cent exists in regular “no mintmark” format from Philly, along with 1931-D and 1931-S issues sporting the two branch mint marks. While Philadelphia didn’t use mint marks at that time, the Denver and San Francisco mints placed their distinguishing marks below the wheat stalks on the reverse.

When Were Wheat Pennies Minted?

The first Wheat Penny Released in 1909

The very first wheat penny entered circulation in 1909 when the United States Mint changed the design from the Indian Head cent to the Lincoln cent with a design featuring two wheat stalks on the reverse side.

This came as part of an effort by President Theodore Roosevelt to redesign American coinage and make it more artistic. The wheat penny design is attributed to Victor D. Brenner, the engraver who also designed the portrait of Abraham Lincoln for the obverse side, based on a plaque he had made several years earlier.

Initially, there was some controversy over Brenner’s design. Some criticized the choice to include Lincoln’s initials (VDB) at the bottom of the reverse side with the wheat stalks. But overall, the wheat penny was received positively and was minted in very large numbers starting in 1909.

More than 72 million wheat cents rolled off the Philadelphia Mint that year alone. Over the next fifty years, billions of these iconic “Wheaties” would enter circulation across America.

End of the Wheat Penny in 1958

The U.S. Mint issued wheat pennies every year for nearly 50 years until wheat penny production came to an end in 1958. That year saw the final substantial mintages of the Lincoln wheat cent, with mint marks from the Philadelphia (no mint mark), Denver (D), and San Francisco (S) Mints all represented in the 1958 rolls and bags.

The wheat penny design came to an end because the U.S. Mint wanted to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1959. So in 1959, the Lincoln Cent adopted the current design featuring an image of the Lincoln Memorial.

Many Americans nostalgically held onto their wheat cents, as they represented a classic American coin that spanned nearly the entire first half of the twentieth century until being replaced by the Lincoln Memorial cent in 1959.

Identifying Genuine Versus Counterfeit Wheat Pennies

Examine the Coin’s Wear Pattern

Genuine early 20th-century wheat pennies exhibit uniform, natural wear from decades of circulation. Under a magnifying lens, examine the high points of the coin’s design (the wheat stalks, letters, date) for smooth, even friction.

Counterfeits often appear too perfect, showing artificial “wear” with suspicious straight lines or gritty textures.

Check the Date and Mint Mark Style

Authentic wheat pennies always show the correct style of date and mint mark for their production era – sharp and well-defined on earlier dates; slightly blunted on 1920s+ issues. Fakers often use inaccurate punches that don’t match the coin’s date.

Also check that the mint mark (if any) has the right size, position, and orientation.

Verify Weight Specifications

Weigh your wheat penny on a sensitive scale. Genuine specimens weigh precisely 3.11 grams. Fake coins are usually underweight or overweight. You can also perform a simple magnet test. Copper wheat cents won’t stick to a magnet at all.

Counterfeits made from steel or other ferrous materials will react weakly or strongly.

For further guidance, browse authoritative sites like PCGS CoinFacts or the museum resources at the Smithsonian Institution. If still uncertain, consult a reputable coin dealer or appraiser. With close inspection and the right references, most collectors can confidently identify original vintage wheat pennies.

Most Valuable and Rare Wheat Penny Issues

1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent

The 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent is widely considered the most famous and coveted wheat penny. It features the initials of the coin’s designer, Victor David Brenner, on the reverse side below Lincoln’s bust.

Only 484,000 examples were produced at the San Francisco Mint before the initials were removed from the design.

High-grade specimens with vibrant red luster can fetch over $2,000 at auction. Even lower grades tend to sell for several hundred dollars. The key to value lies in the clear visibility of the VDB initials on the coin’s rear side.

1914-D Lincoln Wheat Cent

Hailed as the “king” of Lincoln wheat cents, the 1914-D stands out as one of the foremost rarities of 20th-century US coinage. The Denver mint produced just over 1 million examples, the lowest mintage among circulation strike wheat pennies.

Today, the number of surviving pieces is small, as many entered circulation during World War I and suffered heavy wear. Premium examples certify for five- and six-figure prices. Specifically, an MS-64 Red sold for a staggering $329,000 in July 2022.

1931-S Lincoln Wheat Cent

The 1931-S has the lowest mintage of business strike San Francisco wheat pennies, with a mere 866,000 struck. It carries strong collector demand for its status as the “best” coin among very challenging early 1930s entries.

Mint state examples displaying fiery mint red luster can sell for anywhere from $500 to $5,000+ based on grading. Circulated pieces still garner noticeable premiums thanks to immense popularity.

Caring for and Storing Wheat Pennies

Use Coin Holders Instead of Bare Handling

When handling wheat pennies, it’s best to use cotton gloves or hold them by the edges to avoid getting oils and dirt from your skin onto the coin surface. Skin oils can damage the coin over time. Acrylic coin holders or archival flips are also handy for protecting wheat pennies when viewing or displaying them.

Store in Cool, Dry Environments

To best preserve wheat pennies long-term, store them in a cool, dry place away from direct light. Temperature and humidity fluctuations can cause pennies to corrode or develop spotting. An optimal storage temperature is around 70°F with a relative humidity of less than 60%.

Avoid attics, basements, or garages if those spaces are damp or have big seasonal shifts.

Avoid Cleaning or Polishing

Refrain from cleaning or polishing wheat pennies, even if they look dirty or tarnished. Methods like acid baths, jewelry cleaners, or scouring pads will damage a coin’s surface and vastly decrease its value.

As collector coins, wheat pennies develop a natural patina over decades of handling that is part of their history. Gently using a soft cloth to dust a coin is the safest approach.

What Does A Wheat Penny Look Like – Conclusion

In summary, Lincoln wheat pennies get their name from the iconic bronze design elements featured on the coin’s reverse: namely the central wheat ears and bundle motifs. They were produced at United States Mints for nearly 50 years until the wheat penny design was ultimately replaced by the current Lincoln Memorial reverse in 1959.

With a rich history and special place among early 20th-century U.S. coinage, genuine wheat pennies continue to fascinate modern collectors thanks to their stunning antique design. By knowing key dates, mint marks, and how to spot authentic examples, you can confidently identify and enjoy these vintage one-cent pieces.

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