Brenner's Time-Honored Lincoln|
September 23, 2010
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Teddy Roosevelt had a good idea when he decided there should be a coin honoring the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Just as good were his choices of the denomination to be used and the sculptor to design it, Victor D. Brenner.
The Numismatist called Brenner a “brilliant young medallist and ornament to the American Numismatic Association.” Poet Frank Dempster Sherman, who wrote a tribute to the Lincoln cent that appeared in the magazine, described Brenner as a genius. Few would argue the point.
The Lincoln cent proved to be so popular, and the portrait so moving, that the obverse is still going strong a century after its introduction. Instead of the original wheat ears reverse or the Lincoln Memorial design that replaced it in 1959, there are new reverse designs marking the centennial of the Lincoln cent and the Lincoln Bicentennial.
An image of Lincoln nearly identical to the one on the cent first appeared on a bronze plaque Brenner created in 1907. The Lincoln Centennial was fast approaching. Brenner later recalled that his mind was “full of Lincoln.”
The plaque is a real prize for cent collectors. At a Heritage sale in September 2007, an example realized nearly $5,000.
The right edge of the plaque was inscribed “Copyright by V.D. Brenner.” But there would be no royalties for Brenner as the designer of the Lincoln cent.
According to the August 1909 issue of The Numismatist, “Lincoln’s head as it appears on Brenner’s medal, and Brenner’s friendship with Teddy Roosevelt “developed from the sittings for and success of the Roosevelt-Panama medal and led to this model for coinage purposes.”
It happened in 1908. Roosevelt was sitting for Brenner and admired his Lincoln plaque. The choice of denomination was still undecided. A Jan. 30, 1909, letter from the Treasury Department to the editor of The Numismatist stated:
“President Roosevelt has given his consent to the placing of the head of Lincoln on one of the popular coins. He conferred today with Director Leach, of the mint, and details are now under advisement. Victor D. Brenner, the New York sculptor, has submitted to the director some models of Lincoln busts, and these have been shown to the president. The head of Lincoln will adorn one side of the coin and the customary coat of arms the other.
“It is probable that the half dollar piece will be selected as the principal coin to bear the Lincoln head, but some legislation may be necessary to make the change.
The Numismatist later said that Roosevelt proposed the Lincoln cent early in the year, “and long and tedious were Mr. Brenner’s efforts to make it in every way satisfying.” Brenner claimed the choice of denomination was his own. “You see the life of a coin is 25 years, according to law, and the time for the cent and the five-cent piece has expired. It seemed to me that the nickel already had a very practical design, and so I turned my attention to what would be most fitting for the one-cent coin.”
The images of Lincoln on the medal and the cent were based on a photograph by Anthony Berger taken on Feb. 9, 1864, in Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. studio.
Although they may look the same, the portrait on the cent is not an exact copy of the one on the medal. Brenner was a perfectionist and made some changes. “It is more intimate, deeper, more kind and personal,” Brenner wrote of Lincoln’s image on the cent. “It is closer to the man. It makes you feel that you are sitting with him in his library. When it is finished, I shall be nearly satisfied with it.”
Production of Indian Head cents continued in the early part of 1909 at Philadelphia and San Francisco. On Feb. 21, 1909, a newspaper reported the Indian head would be replaced by a Lincoln design. The New York Times said the old cent dies would be destroyed “in a few days.”
Roosevelt left office before the new design was ready. His successor, William Howard Taft, suggested a finishing touch.
“Information from Washington indicates that the now long-anticipated Lincoln cent will not be issued before August,” the June 1909 issue of The Numismatist reported. “When examples from the supposed completed dies were submitted to President Taft, it is said that he asked for the motto ‘In God We Trust’ to be placed on the coin.” The inscription was added to the obverse, above Lincoln’s portrait.
On the first Lincoln cent models, Brenner’s last name was spelled out on the reverse. He was informed his “signature” was too prominent, and he replaced “Brenner” with “V.D.B.”
Brenner was a perfectionist. The changes took time. The March 1909 issue of The Numismatist said: “Several months may pass before the long familiar Indian Head cent will be displaced by a proposed new issue which will have for its main device the head of Lincoln.… Since [the acceptance of the designs], Mr. Brenner has been kept very busy making the suggested, slight but time-consuming changes.”
The dies reportedly were made by Henry Weil, who was described as “a highly respected French sculptor living in New York City.” Weil was a founder of the Medallic Art Co., which had a Janvier machine and occasionally made reductions of coin designs.
The Mint struck millions of Lincoln cents in anticipation of heavy demand. More than 20 million were struck by the time the Mint closed on July 1, 1909, for summer vacation.
Meanwhile, there was growing public interest in the new cent. The July 1, 1909, issue of The Evening Telegram, published in Elyria, Ohio, reported that Lincoln cents had “already been made and proofs struck off and submitted.” Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh approved the design on July 14, 1909. The first examples were released to the public on Aug. 2.
“With the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, the new design for the bronze one-cent piece was adopted in April 1909,” the Mint Director later wrote in his annual report. “On the obverse the head of Lincoln appears instead of the Indian Head which this piece had borne since 1864 [on bronze cents, and as far back as 1859 on copper-nickel cents].
“The engraver of the Mint at Philadelphia was instructed to prepare dies, and coinage of this piece was commenced in May. No coins were paid out until after the close of the fiscal year. A stock was accumulated at the Philadelphia Mint to enable that institution to be in a position to fill orders promptly. The distribution of this piece was commenced on Aug. 2, 1909.”
There was a circus atmosphere when the first Lincoln cents were released on Aug. 2, 1909. The Aug. 3, 1909, issue of The Daily Press, published in Sheboygan, Wis., said, “Countenance of Great Emancipator to Adorn Coin: Design Made From a Photograph.”
“They will soon be widely scattered, and the new coin will be known in every hamlet in the country,” the August 1909 issue of The Numismatist predicted. “Business houses, which have ordered them in quantity for distribution for advertising purposes and for use as change, will largely contribute to the early general circulation.”
The Aug. 3, 1909, issue of the Christian Science Monitor said it would be months before the just released Lincoln cent would replace the Indian Head cent, and weeks before it was in the hands of the general public.
At the Philadelphia Mint, a limit of two Lincoln cents per person was imposed. At the Sub-Treasury, the limit was set at 100 cents. Newsboys bought Lincoln cents by the hundred and sold them at prices ranging from two for a nickel to 25 cents each.
The Washington, D.C., Sub-Treasury received a shipment of 200,000 Lincoln cents and set a limit of one roll—50 cents —to a person.
Brenner obtained some of the new coins and placed them in cardboard holders, which he signed and gave to his friends.
Many people wanted to use Lincoln cents for jewelry purposes. Capt. Thomas Porter of the Secret Service was asked whether the new cents could be gold-plated for use as cuff links or tie tacs. Citing a federal law prohibiting the “mutilation” of United States coins, his answer was “No.” Critical reaction to the Lincoln cent was favorable, although the New York Times was sorry to see the Indian go. The Numismatist said, “The new coin embodies simplicity with art and seems in every way qualified for utility, and being our coin of smallest denomination, it will bring to the low and wanting the features of the one who was the friend of their class.”
The Washington Post called the Lincoln cent “distinctly pretty” and “bright, shiny and dignified.”
A Massachusetts farmer named Ephraim Baldwin liked the Lincoln cent so much that he told his children he would pay a dollar for each one they could obtain for him.
According to a story in the New York Herald, 40 bartenders went home celebrating, each believing he had the only Lincoln cent that escaped the Mint. The drunk who fooled them and swapped the coins for drinks was taken to the police station.
The initial stockpile of Lincoln cents was depleted by Aug. 10 — 25 million coins gone in just eight days.
A thousand Lincoln cents were distributed at a Labor Day barbecue in Washington, D.C. The finders of 20 specially marked coins received a $5 gold coin.
The debut of the Lincoln cent was not without problems. From several sources came reports the Lincoln cent was thicker than the Indian Head cent, resulting in headaches for manufacturers of coin-operated machines.
The Aug. 18, 1909, issue of the Galveston Daily News said, “The edges of the coin are raised to protect the relief work of the Lincoln head.” The newspaper claimed the raised edges made the Lincoln cent nearly the thickness of a nickel.
The Washington Post also said the Lincoln cent was too thick to be used in vending machines. Another story said the Lincoln cent was larger and heavier than the Indian Head cent and was being passed as a nickel in pay phones.
Nevertheless, there were no changes to the size or thickness of the Lincoln cent.
A more serious complaint involved the prominence of Brenner’s initials. Amid rumors of a recall, the Aug. 7, 1909, issue of the Warren Evening Mirror said “Lincoln Pennies are Here to Stay” and reported that the “new coins are not to be withdrawn from circulation.”
Just over a week later, the cent presses were silenced while new reverse dies were being prepared without the initials. At first, it was reported the “V.D.B.” would be replaced with a “B.” An Aug. 15, 1909, press dispatch said:
“Secretary of the Treasury MacVeagh announced today he had decided to have the minting of the new Lincoln pennies stopped and that new dies will be prepared eliminating the initials of the designer, which now appear so prominently, and substituting the single initial ‘B’ in an obscure part of the design.
“The Secretary said that none of the pennies issued so far would be called in, but that the minting would be stopped because a sufficient supply was on hand. The initials ‘V.D.B.’ are those of the designer, V.D. Brenner of New York, and the single letter ‘B,’ in an inconspicuous place, will be left in the new dies as recognition of Mr. Brenner’s work.
“Mr. MacVeagh said that he did not know that the initials would appear in embossed form on the pennies, and that he was surprised when he saw the prominent place they had been given in the design. It has been customary to permit designers to cut one or more of their initials into the design somewhere, but these letters usually have been so small as to require a magnifying glass to discover them.”
The report was not entirely accurate. Because the Mint’s chief engraver Charles Barber used the letter “B” to sign his coin designs, it was not used on the Lincoln cent. Brenner gave his opinion in an Aug. 23, 1909, letter to American Numismatic Association president Farran Zerbe:
“It is mighty hard for me to express my sentiments with reference to the initials on the cent. The name of the artist on a coin is essential for the student of history as it enables him to trace environments and conditions of the time said coin was produced. Much fume has been made about my initials as a means of advertisement; such is not the case. The very talk the initials has brought out has done more good for numismatics than it could do me personally.
“The cent not alone represents in part my art, but it represents the type of art of our period. “The conventionalizing of the sheafs of wheat was done by me with much thought, and I feel that with the prescribed wording no better design could be obtained. The cent will wear out two of the last ones in time, due entirely to the hollow surface.
“The original design had Brenner on it, and that was changed to the initials. Of course the issue rests with the numismatic bodies, and Europe will watch the outcome with interest.”
At a convention in Montreal in August 1909, ANA members passed a resolution protesting the removal of the initials. Texas dealer B. Max Mehl wrote in Mehl’s Numismatic Monthly: “The question of a designers’ initials on a cent piece is not a vital one, and there is no doubt that the world is too little mindful of the artist’s just claim to its recognition. But an artist who can design and execute a coin or medal of merit certainly should have the privilege of attaching his name, or at least his initials, upon his work, the same as the painter places his name on the canvas and the sculptor on his work. St. Gaudens and Pratt, we believe, placed their names on the late issue of gold coins.
“We should make concerted efforts to have the initials of Mr. Brenner retained on the Lincoln cents, not because Mr. Brenner is a member of the A.N.A., but for the historical knowledge it will convey to future generations.
“The Lincoln cent is being admired by the public as an appreciative work of art; then why not retain the initials, which will keep us from being forgetful of he name of the artist whose genius conceived it.”
But the matter did not rest with coin collecting organizations. The campaign to keep the Brenner’s initials on the cent was a failure. It wasn’t until 1918 that “V.D.B.” was added in almost microscopic letters along the edge of the Lincoln bust.
In 1909, the elimination of the initials intensified interest in the Lincoln cent. The Numismatist advised coin dealers to have in constant operation “a phonograph that will grind out, ‘No premium on Lincoln cents with V.D.B. on them, or with anything else on or off them.”
The message was the same nearly a year later. The May 25, 1910, issue of the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel said there was no premium for the 1909 Lincoln cent variety without the initials.
Looking back, it seems like the deal of the century. In a classified ad in Mekeel’s Weekly Stamp News, E.D. Bothwell of Oakland, Calif., offered “new Lincoln pennies, V.D.B., first issue, rare 7c each, postfree.” No doubt they were the now highly prized 1909-S VDB cents. Currently, a Mint State-60 example is valued at $1,850.
The 1909-S V.D.B. had a mintage of only 484,000. The 1909-S Lincoln cent without the designer’s initials had a mintage of more than 1.8 million. Coin Prices lists it at $360 in Mint State-60. The value is roughly the same for a variety with the “S” mintmark repunched over a horizontal “S.”
The Denver Mint had opened in 1906 but would not begin striking cents until 1911. Mint Director George E. Roberts wrote of operations at the Denver Mint in his annual report, “The first coinage here of bronze one-cent pieces was on May 20, 1911.”
At the Philadelphia Mint, nearly 28 million 1909 V.D.B. cents were struck, including some with a doubled-die obverse. The variety is valued at $150 in MS-60. A normal 1909 V.D.B. cent from the Philadelphia Mint is valued at $25 in MS-60.
In 1910, it was a different story. Newspapers said no premium was being paid for 1909 Lincoln cents of any kind. Still, requests for Lincoln cents continued to pour into the Treasury Department from banks throughout the country.
Hoarding was so widespread that people in some remote areas were still unfamiliar with the new coin. In October 1910, a North Dakota resident saw his first Lincoln cent and wrote a letter to the postmaster general asking if it was counterfeit.
Now, a century and billions of coins later, it’s hard to imagine a world without Brenner’s Lincoln cent.
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On September 26, 2010 J. Fitzloff
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