Collectors of U.S. coins will no doubt be familiar with the many iterations of the Lincoln cent, but most of the public will go their whole lives without paying any attention to the details of this ubiquitous coin. It’s as familiar to Americans as baseball, and yet it’s completely overlooked, the story behind this everyday object unknown.
Interestingly enough, the man behind this famous miniature portrait of Lincoln wasn’t American. He was Victor David Brenner, but he was born Viktoras Baranauskas to a Jewish family living in Šiauliai, Lithuania – which in 1871 was a garrison town on the edge of the Russian Empire. At age 19, rather than be exiled to Siberia, he immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City.
When Brenner arrived in America the only skills he had to support himself were the gem and seal engraving his father had taught him. He worked as a die cutter in a factory and then opened a small workshop. Later on he would study in Paris with Oscar Roty, the great medalist. His work was exhibited to acclaim, and in 1908 he was asked to create a Panama Canal service medal featuring then president, Theodore Roosevelt. It was during these sessions with Roosevelt that Brenner suggested, as many others had, a coin to honor Abraham Lincoln. He was already working on a Lincoln centennial plaque, and he showed it to Roosevelt, who was impressed. Under Roosevelt’s leadership four other gold coins had been redesigned, and the penny was next.
It would have been difficult to find a better sponsor for this project. Roosevelt was a long-time admirer of Abraham Lincoln and had built his career on reform, including protections for the common man and conservation of nature. With his progressive Republican politics, Roosevelt considered himself to be Lincoln’s political successor. To honor Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909, Roosevelt ordered the Lincoln penny to be minted using Brenner’s work which itself had been inspired by a portrait done of Lincoln by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
The obverse of this Lincoln cent, the first portrait coin in a U.S. regular series, was a profile of Lincoln with the word “LIBERTY” on the left and the phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST,” and the reverse featured two ears of durum wheat as well as the phrases “ONE CENT,” “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” and “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” At the bottom of the coin where the ears of wheat meet were Brenner’s initials, VDB.
The Lincoln 1909 cent was struck first in Philadelphia and then in San Francisco, but far more were produced in Philadelphia. These have no mint mark. After its release, people complained that Brenner’s initials detracted from the design, and, as a result, it was eliminated. Only about half a million VDB pennies were struck in San Francisco, and those are the ones that are more rare and valued today. In 1918 these initials were returned to the coin, but this time hidden in Lincoln’s shoulder.
Many Lincoln cent pieces are quite valuable now, but the 1909 coin was the one that originated this popular and enduring coin. If you are interested in collecting some or all of the variations of the Lincoln cent, contact us at Mullen Coins. We’d love to help you collect these pieces of American history.