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Reflected Light Digital Image Gallery

Penny

The phrase "just a penny for your thoughts" might place Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, on your mind. Made of pure copper during most of its existence, except during the years of World War II, the Lincoln penny has been minted since 1909. Its design is based on a photographic portrait by Anthony Berger taken on February 9, 1864, in Mathew Brady's Washington, D.C. studio.

So common that many people do not stoop to pick up a dropped coin, the Lincoln penny was not always so ignored. So much criticism hit then-President William Taft over the inclusion of the sculptor's, Victor David Brenner (VDB), initials on the back of the coin, that he had to order the removal of all initials except the "B". Eventually, in 1919, the initials were miniaturized and placed on the face of the coin, below the bevel of the bust. Others threw in their two cents worth, angered that this coin of a president that Southerners considered the enemy had replaced the vastly more popular Indian Head cent minted for a half of a century (1859-1909). The Lincoln penny was the first U.S. coin to feature a president's portrait, and to some, was too reminiscent of European monarchies that their democracy clearly rejected. Still others, primarily Northerners, and freed slaves and their families, found it insulting that such a "great man" was put on such a lowly denomination as their "emancipation money."

The U.S. Mint in the Department of Treasury stopped making pure copper pennies in 1982. In 1959, on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse replaced the two wheat ears, and this version is still in production. The penny has evolved from being composed of pure copper, to copper-plated zinc, to the current version of the "copper penny" that is 98 percent zinc. Commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt for the Civil War President's centennial, the Lincoln penny was the first U.S. coin engraved with "In God We Trust". In 1909, the Treasury Department struck more than 100 million cents, and for the last 25 years, the annual run is about 10 billion, accounting for more than two thirds of all U.S. coins. It is interesting to note that Brenner, the designer of America's most celebrated coin, was a convicted counterfeiter. Of course, that was in his Mother Russia and may have been the result of undercover entrapment by the Czarist regime.

Contributing Authors

Cynthia D. Kelly, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.


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