Which president is on the penny? The penny has been around for over 100 years as one of the most recognizable coins in U.S. circulation. The iconic portrait etched onto its surface is that of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president. But have you ever wondered why Lincoln was chosen to be the face of the one-cent coin?

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the fascinating history behind the Lincoln penny to uncover all you need to know about America’s longest-running cent.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: The penny bears the profile of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Lincoln was chosen to be on the first penny in 1909 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The Origins of the Lincoln Penny

The Push to Honor Lincoln on Coinage

Abraham Lincoln’s legacy began to take shape in the years after his assassination in 1865. By the early 1900s, there was a growing movement to honor the beloved 16th president by putting his image on a U.S. coin.

This push was led by President Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Nelson Aldrich, who introduced legislation in 1909 directing the Treasury Department to overhaul American coin designs on pennies, nickels, and dimes.

They believed that the nation’s coinage should be more artistic and better reflect the country’s history and values.

At the same time, Victor David Brenner, an accomplished sculptor and engraver, started lobbying the Roosevelt administration and Congress for the chance to design a coin featuring the profile of Abraham Lincoln.

Brenner already had a connection with Roosevelt and close ties in the numismatic community. His persistence helped bring further momentum to the idea of honoring Lincoln on coinage. By early 1909, Brenner had won over President Roosevelt with his bold vision for a dramatic new Lincoln “cent” that would set it apart from all previous pennies.

Victor David Brenner’s Winning Penny Design

Victor David Brenner’s vision for the Lincoln Cent dramatically came to life with his winning entry. His portrait design was paired with two ears of wheat for the reverse side to symbolize dignity, prosperity, and agriculture – all values associated with Abraham Lincoln.

Brenner was able to meticulously study Lincoln’s features using a life mask created in 1860 by sculptor Leonard Volk. His profile portrait was both strong and sensitive, capturing Lincoln’s strength of character and depth of wisdom at age 51, less than five years before his death.

Brenner chose the year 1909 for the coin’s first release, marking a century since Lincoln’s birth.

Key Design Changes Over the Years

Wheat Ears Reverse (1909-1958)

The original design for the reverse of the Lincoln cent featured two wheat stalks flanking the words “One Cent.” This agricultural theme was meant to symbolize prosperity in America at the turn of the 20th century.

The wheat ears design was created by Victor David Brenner, who also designed the portrait of Abraham Lincoln for the obverse side.

This classic “wheat penny” design remained on the reverse for nearly 50 years until 1959. Many numismatists (coin collectors) still hunt for rare dates and mint marks from the Wheat Ears series today.

Lincoln Memorial Reverse (1959-2008)

In 1959, the reverse design was changed to depict the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. This coincided with the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

The image shows the Lincoln Memorial building with the memorial’s namesake statue visible inside the open entrance. “United States of America” and “E Pluribus Unum” encircle the top.

This updated design gave renewed interest to the Lincoln cent by depicting an iconic American monument honoring one of the most revered presidents. The memorial reverse became very familiar to Americans and was minted for half a century.

Union Shield Reverse (2010-Present)

The current reverse first appeared in 2010 to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The central image is a union shield with a scroll draped across it containing the inscription “ONE CENT.” The shield symbolizes strength and unity, patriotic ideals Lincoln fought to preserve.

Thirteen vertical stripes represent the 13 original states, while the horizontal bar above symbolizes the states added later. “United States of America” loops around the top rim and “E Pluribus Unum” is at the bottom.

This modern rendition of traditional American iconography gives a fresh look to the penny for the 21st century. Coin experts believe this contemporary design could remain on the coin for decades to come.

Lincoln Penny Composition and Materials

1909-1982: 95% Copper and 5% Tin and Zinc

From its first minting in 1909 until 1982, the Lincoln cent coin was composed of 95% copper, with the remaining 5% a combination of tin and zinc. This bronze material gave the coins their iconic reddish-orange color that many Americans came to closely associate with the penny over several generations.

The durability and abundant supply of copper enabled the U.S. Mint to produce tens of billions of Lincoln pennies over those seven decades that remained in circulation for extended periods of time. According to the U.S. Mint, the average life span of those early copper cents was an impressive 25 years.

1943: Zinc-Coated Steel

In 1943, the composition of the penny changed to zinc-coated steel. This was done because copper was considered a critical war material during World War II. The steel cents were silvery-gray in appearance and became widely known as “steelies.”

The switch to steel was controversial, with some government officials arguing that pennies weren’t vital to the war effort. But steel pennies continued to be minted through 1945 when bronze cents returned.

Only 874 million steel cents were made, making them rare and sought-after by modern coin collectors and hobbyists.

1944-1946: Return to Wartime Bronze

In 1944, the U.S. Mint began producing Lincoln cents using shell casings made of reusable bronze alloys recovered from spent artillery shell casings collected by the public. These pennies are known as “shell case cents” and have a unique greenish hue.

Shell case cents make up an extremely small portion of the wartime cents produced, with a mintage of:

  • 1945 bronze cents: 1.2 billion
  • 1946 bronze cents: 991 million

This return to bronze was short-lived, however, as zinc-coated steel Lincoln cents returned in 1946 and 1947 before the familiar copper composition came back in 1948.

1982-Present: 97.5% Zinc and 2.5% Copper (Copper Plating)

In 1982 the penny’s composition changed to its current incarnation of 97.5% zinc covered by a thin copper plating that comprises 2.5% of the coin’s total weight. This change occurred because the value of copper in the cent coins had risen to nearly one cent, meaning the U.S Mint was losing money by producing them.

Penny Composition Dates Used
95% copper/5% tin and zinc 1909-1982
Zinc-coated steel 1943
Reused bronze alloys 1944-1946
97.5% zinc/2.5% copper plating 1982-present

While no longer containing as much copper, the current zinc and copper cents have proven far more economical to produce, with the U.S. Mint manufacturing tens of billions of them over the past 40 years. They are expected to remain the penny’s composition for the foreseeable future.

Fun Facts and Records About the Lincoln Cent

Most Valuable Lincoln Pennies for Collectors

Some Lincoln cents have significant value for coin collectors and enthusiasts. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service, the most valuable Lincoln pennies include:

  • The 1909-S VDB Lincoln Cent – This coin has the designer’s initials (“VDB” for Victor David Brenner) on the reverse side. Only 484,000 were minted, making it highly valuable for collectors. In top condition, this coin has sold for over $1 million at auction.
  • The 1914-D Lincoln Cent – Only 1,193,000 of these were minted at the Denver Mint. In Choice Brilliant Uncirculated condition, this coin has sold for over $170,000 at auction.
  • The 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent – As copper was reserved for military materials during World War II, this U.S. penny was briefly made of zinc-coated steel. The rarity and novelty have made it valuable to collectors, with mint specimens selling for over $75 online.

There are many other valuable Lincoln cents for enthusiasts like rare proof coins, doubled dies, and major errors. Mintmarks, conditions, and small production details can mean huge differences in value.

Longest Running Coin Design in U.S. History

The Lincoln cent has the longest-running design of any circulating U.S. coin. It has remained largely unchanged since first minted in 1909, aside from a brief steel composition during World War II. At well over 100 years and counting of production, it has achieved an impressive run as a circulating coin design.

Lincoln Cent Fun Facts and Records
Year of Original Design 1909
Total Years in Circulation 114 years (and counting!)
Total Number Minted Over 300 billion coins since 1909
Composition 95% copper (bronze alloy)

The Lincoln cent has seen the U.S. through two world wars, the Great Depression, the Space Age, the Digital Revolution, and more. Abraham Lincoln’s enduring profile on the obverse has made it an iconic American coin.

According to the U.S. Mint, the Lincoln cent’s longevity is due to positive public sentiment, making it unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. Nearly 100 years on, Lincoln’s famous beard and steadfast gaze continue to see the light of circulation.

The Future of the Penny and Lincoln’s Legacy

The future of the penny has been a topic of debate for years. With inflation steadily eroding its purchasing power, many have called for the discontinuation of the one-cent coin. However, the penny retains symbolic value and historical significance that have helped it endure repeated threats of elimination.

As America’s longest-running currency denomination, the penny is intertwined with Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. Lincoln graced the front of the coin in 1909 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The iconic portrait has become globally recognizable and synonymous with Abe’s vision for opportunity and equality.

While the usefulness of the penny has declined, it remains beloved by many Americans. Recent polls found that almost two-thirds of U.S. adults want to keep it in circulation. The coin’s endurance is aided by active lobbying from zinc and copper interests determined to keep making billions of pennies each year.

The penny also retains cultural influence and value for educational purposes. The unique one-cent piece provides a tangible bridge to history for children and newcomers looking to understand the fundamentals of counting, saving, trading, and American currency.

Despite rising manufacturing costs, Abraham Lincoln will likely continue gracing pennies for the foreseeable future. The coin’s symbolism and Lincoln’s admired legacy have persisted through all the modern debates over the penny’s economic utility.

While its buying power has evaporated over the last century, the penny’s larger meaning for American society remains priceless.

Which President Is On The Penny – Conclusion

Abraham Lincoln left an indelible legacy as one of the most influential presidents in American history. Although his time in office was cut short by tragedy, Lincoln guided the country through its darkest hour and put into motion changes that would reshape the nation.

Over a century later, his memory lives on through many tributes, not least of which is his enduring presence on the U.S. one-cent coin.

The Lincoln penny stands as a small but ubiquitous monument to the 16th president’s lasting impact. Since 1909, Lincoln’s stoic profile on the obverse has symbolized the strength and perseverance of American democracy.

Though its purchasing power has diminished over the years, the penny bearing Lincoln’s image remains an integral part of our currency system and will likely continue to circulate for generations to come.

Each new shining Lincoln cent minted is a tiny tribute to the leadership and vision of the legendary president it depicts.

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