The Transitional Cents of 1974

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 3/1/2004

Collectors of Lincoln cents can easily see for themselves that Victor D. Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln has evolved over the years since its debut in 1909.

David Lange

Collectors of Lincoln cents can easily see for themselves that Victor D. Brenner's portrait of Lincoln has evolved over the years since its debut in 1909. Once crisp and richly detailed after several decades of coinage, Lincoln's bust became blurred and misshapen, as the obverse master hub for this coin type wore down. It was not until 1969 that the U.S. Mint addressed this problem by providing an entirely new master hub for that year's production. Since that time the Mint has updated the Lincoln portrait frequently. In recent years these changes have consisted of efforts to reduce the relief of his bust and thereby extend the useful life of the dies.

Of particular interest to collectors, at least those with sharp eyes, are the subtle changes that occurred during 1974. The obverse master hub created in 1969 and used thereafter through 1973 was replaced with a dramatically sharpened portrait for the 1974 cent coinage. In addition to more distinct lettering, numeral 7 of the date received a shorter horizontal segment and a long, curving arc to its diagonal segment. Finally, the Lincoln bust was given a more robust character, his wavy hair being bolder and more sharply delineated from his ear.

Dies generated from this new and very attractive obverse hub were used by all four mints active at that time. This included West Point which, like Philadelphia, coined cents without a mintmark. Strangely, however, this obverse hub was replaced with another one midway through 1974, resulting in two subtypes for the Lincoln cents dated 1974. This hub, too, was used to sink dies for all the mints, resulting in a total of six collectable cent varieties for 1974. All of the 1974-S proofs appear to be from the first hub, as the proofs were made early in that year.

The second obverse of 1974 differed from the first in being of faintly lower relief and having duller details in Lincoln's hair. A noticeable blending of Lincoln's ear with the surrounding hair further aggravated this loss of boldness. Finally, the new master hub had been mechanically reduced to a slightly smaller diameter than the first. This provided greater separation of peripheral elements from the coin's border, but it also made the entire design slightly smaller overall. This is perhaps most noticeable in the greater distance between the date and adjacent border on the revised hub.

I discovered these two subtypes several years ago while preparing my book The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents. In this book both hub types of 1974 cents were illustrated for each of the three collectable issues (plain, D and S). Simply because the terms were already familiar to collectors, I labeled these varieties Large Date and Small Date. Large Date refers to the first hub of 1974, as the date is nearer the border and thus appears larger. Despite being well illustrated, these varieties elicited little interest from the hobby and are nearly unknown today.

The attractive first obverse hub of 1974 thus proved to be a one-year-only subtype. The second hub of 1974 was then used until a new one having a much smaller date was introduced midway through 1982. Since that time the portrait of Lincoln has been revised many times, its relief now being so low, and the shoulder so sunken, that the effect is that of a simple line drawing rather than a bas relief.

While writing my book, I became puzzled as to why the Mint would adopt a unique obverse hub in 1974 only to abandon it that very same year. The solution to this mystery was found in examining the Mint's experimental alloy cents dated 1974. The rising price of copper during 1973 had prompted a test production of cents made of aluminum, as well as another run in bronze-clad steel. As the price of copper returned to normal levels, these proposals were forgotten for the time being, though a few examples survive of each alloy. Photographs of the experimental 1974 cents reveal that these featured the first obverse hub of 1974. As the experimental coins were struck beginning in the fall of 1973, my speculation is that the new obverse hub was created in anticipation of a compositional change to one of these softer alloys. When this change fell through, the Mint reverted to a lower-relief obverse that would permit the mass coining of traditional bronze cents.

What this means to collectors is that there are two minor subtypes of 1974 cents from each mint, for a total of six varieties. While the differences are subtle, they should be of greater interest to cent collectors.

David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association