USA Coin Album: A Memorial to the Memorial Cent

Posted on 5/9/2017

This most common of United States coins is already passing into history.

It has now been more than eight years since the last cents were coined with the Lincoln Memorial reverse. Adopted in 1959, this imagery had a solid run of 50 years, the same as for its predecessor design featuring heraldic wheat ears. Hundreds of billions of these coins were produced, and they remain the dominant type seen in circulation, though they will ultimately be overtaken by the current design featuring the Union Shield. Given the reluctance of Congress to recognize the obvious obsolescence of the cent, it may be that Shield cents will be in production for 50 years, as well. By that time each one may cost a dollar to produce!

The decision to change the reverse of the Lincoln cent was prompted by the sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth in 1959, just as the original edition had resulted from a desire to mark its centennial in 1909. The Treasury Department solicited designs from the Philadelphia Mint's own engraving staff that would depict the Lincoln Memorial, which had been erected in 1922 at the western end of the National Mall in Washington, DC. A drawing by Assistant Engraver Frank Gasparro was selected, and this was then forwarded to the Commission of Fine Arts for comment and, it was hoped, approval. The latter was not a legal requirement, as official selection of the design was in the hands of Treasury Secretary Robert B. Anderson. The CFA viewed Gasparro's drawing November 6, 1958, giving it conditional approval. It was suggested that the words LINCOLN MEMORIAL be removed from beneath the building and that the 13 stars surrounding the structure also be deleted. As we now know, these changes were indeed made, and also removed from the final design were the two pellets, or legend stops, which appeared at the beginning and ending of UNITED STATES oF AMERICA. The CFA challenged the architectural accuracy of the structure as Gasparro had drawn it, but the urgency of having dies ready on January 2, 1959 precluded any further changes.

Collectors were naturally excited at the prospect of a new design for what was then the most popularly collected series of United States coins. The 1959(P) and 1959-D cents were widely hoarded, but this was not a remarkable event. The saving of new coins by the roll had been popular since the mid 1930s, and this activity progressed to a speculative frenzy around the same time that the Lincoln Memorial cent debuted. I'll have more to say about such hoarding next month.

A detailed examination of the entire series from 1959 through its termination in 2008 is beyond the scope of this column, but there are a few bullet points worthy of mention. The cents struck 1959-1964 are unremarkable on most counts, as they were coined in the billions at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. Many of the 1964-dated pieces were actually struck during 1965 (see this column for June, 2016). There was a frenzy in the hobby created over the discovery of two distinctive date sizes for the 1960 issue from both mints. Ultimately, only the 1960(P) Small Date cents, both the currency pieces and the proofs, proved to have small enough mintages to warrant speculator attention. Nevertheless, the whole episode was a huge boost to the coin hobby and was widely reported in the non-numismatic media.

The cents dated 1965-67 were struck at three mints, the San Francisco Assay Office resuming coinage for the first time since 1955, yet none of these coins are identified as to mint of origin. Mintmarks were restored in 1968, and San Francisco cents were struck for circulation through 1974 with its popular 'S' mintmark. The hoarding of such pieces prompted the removal of this attractive letter starting with 1975's production, yet both the SFAO and the West Point Bullion Depository coined anonymous cents for several years thereafter.

The relief of the Lincoln cent's obverse was systematically lowered beginning in 1969 to restore details and improve die life, with further alterations occurring during the 1970s. The president's shoulder was hollowed out in 1984 to end the characteristic weakness of the Latin legend on this coin type's reverse. Additional flattening of the portrait began in the 1990s, and it is presently little more than a two-dimensional caricature of the 1909 bust. The Memorial reverse has been altered slightly over the years, but the fairly low relief of the 1959 original served it well through the end of this type in 2008.

When I began collecting cents from circulation in 1965, the Lincoln Memorial type already predominated, with perhaps just 20% of the cents I encountered being Wheat Ear coins dating 1940-58 (earlier dates were already scarce, though not impossible to find). All the Memorial cents were then common, with the exception of 1959(P) and 1960(P) Small Date. I did find those within a year or two, and this was well before it occurred to me to search rolls from the bank. Those pieces remained the only circulated coins in my set of Lincoln Memorial cents, as the others could still be found in bright red condition.

In next month's column I'll take a look at how the collecting of Lincoln Memorial cents has evolved from the casual sort of collecting of my youth to the much more sophisticated (and expensive) pursuit that it is today.

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

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