THE CENTS OF 1909, Part Two

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 10/1/2006

David W. Lange continues his retrospective of 1909's most noteworthy cents.

David Lange
President Theodore Roosevelt was the embodiment of the "Progressive" movement of the early 20th century. Progressives sought social change to bring about an uplifting of the American people both economically and culturally. One way in which Roosevelt hoped to further this movement was by applying the very highest standards of metallic sculpture to the nation's coinage. After securing superb new designs for the four gold denominations in 1907-08, his attention was directed toward the cent. Though it had sentimental appeal for many Americans, James B. Longacre's Indian Head Liberty cent of 1859 now looked rather quaint, and Roosevelt sought something bolder and more realistic.

Having sat with sculptor Victor D. Brenner while Brenner prepared his portrait for the Panama Canal Service medal in 1908, Roosevelt then commissioned the artist to create a new one-cent piece for the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, which was to be celebrated the following year. The president admired the bas-relief of Lincoln that Brenner had created in 1907 for a bronze plaque based on a recently discovered 1864 photo of Lincoln by Anthony Berger. This plaque was widely reproduced over a period of years, and it is sufficiently common that many collectors of Lincoln cents have acquired an example.

As with any new coin design, there were a number of intermediate stages before final models were approved. The earliest Lincoln cent patterns lacked the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which was added more to balance the design than for any of the reasons one might expect. These patterns also carried the artist's surname in full, though this was pared down to his initials, V.D.B., before any coins were minted for circulation.

Mass production of the Lincoln cent began at the Philadelphia Mint on June 10, 1909. Coining continued for just a couple of weeks before the mint had to shut down for its annual settlement, an encumbrance occasioned by the end of its fiscal year on June 30. Production resumed early in July, at which time San Francisco began striking the new cents. Though authorized to coin cents, too, the Denver Mint did not exercise this option until 1911. The New Orleans Mint was likewise permitted to strike minor coins under a law passed in 1906, but it had already exhausted its appropriation for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1909. No further funds were forthcoming for the new fiscal year, and all coining at that facility thus stopped. There would never be an 'O' Mint cent.

As planned, the Lincoln Cent was first issued on August 2. Newspaper reports announcing the new coin had led already to a widespread frenzy, as seemingly everybody had to have one. The supply on hand was quickly exhausted, and those who had a few to spare were able to profit from their good fortune. Examples reportedly brought as much as 25 cents apiece during the first week of issue, though more modest premiums were the norm.

A furor arose over the inclusion of the sculptor's initials on the reverse of the cent, though a similar feature could then be found on the quarter eagle and half eagle. In fact, all of the coins then in production carried some identification of the artist, save for the nickel and the eagle. After just a few days of circulation, the decision was made to remove Brenner's initials. These were evidently lapped off of the reverse dies on hand, which were used while new ones were prepared that lacked the letters.

The Philadelphia Mint cents of both varieties were struck in fairly large numbers and widely hoarded, particularly those carrying the letters V.D.B. The 1909-S Lincoln cents were struck in much smaller quantities, the total production of 'S' Mint cents with the letters being just 484,000 pieces. Had they not been subject to similar hoarding these coins would be very rare today. As it is, 1909-S V.D.B. cents, while they were always rare in circulation, are fairly available across a wide range of Mint State grades.

The Philadelphia Mint cents of both issues are easily found in fully red condition, the first emission clearly being more common. Most examples are sharply struck, though the designer's initials, being a peripheral feature very close to the border, are subject to some weakness. A couple of collectable doubled-die obverse varieties are known for the 1909 V.D.B. cents, while a less interesting doubled-die reverse is known for the second issue.

1909-S cents of both issues may be found with mint red color, usually a bit mellowed, but these coins are often seen with the streaky, woodgrain toning described last month with respect to 1909-S Indian cents. This may be a helpful authentication tool for these scarce coins, which are often faked by adding a mint mark to the less expensive 1909 Philadelphia cents. Peripheral striking weakness is again common with 1909-S cents of both issues, the designer's initials sometimes appearing incomplete.

The 1909-S cents without initials are known with two interesting and very collectable varieties. One has the mint mark repunched, the first impression being to the right of the second. Far more commonly seen is the popular S over horizontal S variety. This variety actually comprises a large percentage of the surviving Mint State population.

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