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LINCOLN CENTS by Chris Aable

 First minted in 1909 and every year since, the Lincoln Cent is truly an antique design, although many non-collectors may think it is of modern design.   In the late 1700s many people were calling for the United States to mint its own coinage and recommending that these first coins include the nation's first President, George Washington.  But Washington himself found the idea distasteful, stating in effect that placing real people on coins was too similar a habit to the British Royals that America had fought against, a regular-issue U.S. coin honoring an actual person.  Nevertheless, the voices of respect for Lincoln's contributions to America  could not be quieted.  And the whispers of important people wanting him honored on our coinage became louder and louder before the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth year, 1809.   As early as 1905  plans were made to honor the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth with a new cent featuring a bust of the beloved president.  President Theodore Roosevelt had a personal interest in revitalizing U.S. coinage. Having pushed through exciting new designs for the four gold denominations in 1907, he turned his attention to the cent, where the Indian Head design minted every year from 1859 to 1909.   He was steered in this direction by Victor David Brenner, a Lithuanian emigrant with tremendous artistic talent and enormous admiration for Abraham Lincoln. Their paths crossed in 1908, when Roosevelt posed for Brenner for a Panama Canal Service medal. The artist had already modeled a plaque and medal for Lincoln's birth centennial and suggested a Lincoln coin. The president readily agreed and asked him to submit proposed designs.  Brenner's obverse design featured a portrait of Lincoln facing right, and for the first time on the cent, the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, a flagrant violation of Thomas Jefferson's and many other founding fathers logic of  separation of church and state.   It was reasoned that those who chose to believe in an invisible creator have a personal, not national, interpretation of god and that these personal concepts are not born of universal evidence, but  born of  their own politics, prejudices and biases.   Flanking Lincoln's bust on the left was the inscription LIBERTY, with the date on the right. The reverse design showed two sheaves of wheat, one on either side, framing the inscriptions ONE CENT, E PLURIBUS UNUM and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The highest points on the obverse are Lincoln's cheekbone and jaw, on the reverse the tips of the wheat stalks. These are places that often are softly struck or show weak details prior to 1936, even in uncirculated grades. 

Indian cents were still being minted in 1909, as the Lincoln Cent was not released until August 1909.  The first coins minted  were found to bear the artist's initials V.D.B. at the base of the reverse. Public outrage of this "arrogance"  led to their quick removal, and issues from late 1909 to 1917 do not bear the designers initials which should rightfully and proudly be the mark of any great artist.   Brenner's initials were restored in 1918, in much smaller letters, on the shoulder of Lincoln's bust.

The Lincoln Cent is perhaps the world's most popular coin to collect.  One dealer, C.W. Brown, who had sold over one million older Lincoln cents in the 1980s, had estimated that there were probably millions of serious collectors and beginners collecting Lincoln cents. Collectors frequently make this the very first series they pursue because of its high visibility and relative affordability, and many stick with it even after graduating from the ranks of millions of beginners.  Other Lincolns avidly sought by collectors are "doubled-die" errors. These coins have obvious doubling in the date and/or inscriptions. Perhaps the most dramatic, and most valuable, error of this type occurred on the obverse of small numbers of cents struck in 1955 at Philadelphia. Major doubling also can be found on the obverse of some cents dated 1936, 1972, 1984 and 1995 and on the reverse of some cents dated 1983. 

In 1943, with copper urgently needed for combat-related purposes, the Mint made Lincoln cents from zinc-coated steel. The substitute proved unsatisfactory, and from 1944 through 1946 the Mint instead used the brass alloy first tried in 1942; this lacked the small percentage of tin employed before and after the war. At least a portion of this brass was obtained from salvaged cartridge cases, which did the job nicely. The one-year experiment left a lasting legacy when the Mint inadvertently struck minuscule numbers of 1943 cents in bronze and a slightly greater number of 1944 cents in steel. Both are quite rare and valuable. Many years ago, a false rumor spread around the country that Henry Ford would trade a new car in exchange for the fabled 1943 copper! The Lincoln cent's 50th birthday, in 1959, also marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. The Mint observed it by giving the cent a new reverse depicting the Lincoln Memorial. This was fashioned by Frank Gasparro, an assistant engraver (and future chief engraver) at the Mint.

The Lincoln cent would go on to be issued longer than any other coin in U.S. history and in far greater numbers than any other coin in the history of the world. Looking back, it seems incomprehensible that such a familiar coin, one we take for granted today, was ever so controversial due to the portrait of a real person who brought a country through its darkest time. 


1909-1942, 1947-1962

Diameter: 19 millimeters
Weight: 3.11 grams
Composition: .950 copper, .050 zinc and tin
Edge: Plain


Diameter: 19 millimeters
Weight: 2.70 grams
Composition: Zinc-coated steel
Edge: Plain

1944-1946, 1962-1982

Diameter: 19 millimeters
Weight: 3.11 grams
Composition: .950 copper, .050 zinc
Edge: Plain

1982 to date

Diameter: 19 millimeters
Weight: 2.50 grams
Composition: .975 zinc, .025 copper
Edge: Plain


Breen, Walter, (A great a noble friend of mine - Rest in Peace)  Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Doubleday, New York, 1988.

Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Arco Publishing Co., New York, 1966.

Taylor, Sol, The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent, 3rd Edition, published by the author, Sherman Oaks, CA, 1992.

Tomaska, Rick Jerry, Cameo and Brilliant Proof Coinage of the 1950 to 1970 Era, R &I Publications, Encinitas, CA, 1991.

Vermeule, Cornelius, Numismatic Art in America, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971.

Wexler, John & Kevin Flynn, The Authoritative Reference on Lincoln Cents, KCKPress, Rancocas, NJ, 1996.




"Nickels" or five cent pieces, are actually made of 75% copper and only 25% nickel.  But nickels got their name because up until the time of their introduction, five cent pieces were made out of silver and called "half dimes". 

The Buffalo nickel entered circulation on March 4, 1913, when the first was presented to President Taft and 33 Indian Chiefs at ceremonies for the National Memorial to the North American Indian at Fort Wadsworth, New York.

James Earle Fraser, a former assistant to Saint-Gaudens and a prolific artist best known for his monumental "End of the Trail" Indian sculpture, created the design for the coin.  Fraser's design accurately portrays Indians as they look, and the obverse portrait was a composite of three chiefs that had posed for him. Keeping with the distinctly American theme, he depicted an American bison on the reverse. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM are artfully placed over the buffalo, with the denomination FIVE CENTS below. The legend LIBERTY and the date are on the coin's obverse.

Opposition immediately came from the vending machine business, which in 1913 was growing rapidly due in part to the nickel-movie vending machines,  and felt that the new coins wouldn't pass counterfeit detection devices properly. After much wrangling over this, Secretary MacVeagh instructed the Mint to proceed with the original design, and let the vending machine companies adapt their mechanisms to the coin. Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 through 1938 at three mints; Philadelphia (no mintmark), San Francisco (S), and Denver (D). The mintmark can be found on the reverse under the denomination, while the designer's initial "F" is below the date. There were two varieties made. Type 1 nickels, minted only during the first few months of 1913, had the denomination FIVE CENTS on a raised mound. As early as April, rapid wear in this area became evident on the coins in circulation, so the Chief Engraver at the mint, Charles Barber  cut away the mound and placed the bison on a straight line, then put the denomination in the recessed area under the line.   He also smoothed out much of the detail and roughness in both the Indian's portrait and the bison's hide. The resulting Type 2, however, lacked much of the artistic impact of the original. Barber again made minor modifications in 1916, and some specialists consider this a third type, but most type collectors only consider the Type 1 and 2 coins as actual varieties. It is strange that during all his modifications, Barber never addressed the problem of the date wearing down too rapidly.

No Buffalo nickels were made in 1922, 1932, and 1933.  Many mintmarked coins, especially from 1918 through 1934, are virtually unavailable well, and impossible to find with full sharp strikes. When grading these coins, and many other weakly struck Buffalos, collectors must take the surface into account, as many uncirculated examples will not show rounded relief detail on the high points of the horn or the fringe on the tail.  Generally, the date and LIBERTY will be faint on weakly struck pieces. The points on the coin that wear most readily are the high point of the Indian's cheekbone and the hair near the part.  On the reverse, the bison's shoulder.

One of the most difficult nickels to obtain is the famous 1937-D 3-legged Buffalo. This extremely popular variety (caused by excessive die-polishing to remove coining machine clash-marks) was not discovered until most of the coins had reached circulation, making higher grade specimens very rare today.

The past decade has witnessed renewed collector interest in the Buffalo series, no doubt stimulated by the state quarter designs and the new nickel being issued in 2003 to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.  An ever-growing number of numismatists are assembling complete sets of Buffalos by date and mintmark, but demand is also strong from type collectors, all of whom seek this design for their 20th century or more larger type sets. Inexpensive type examples such as 1938-D are very popular among type collectors, as they are often among the best struck of the entire series. 

By the end of 1937, planning for the Buffalo nickel's successor was well under way, as the design's required 25 years would end the following year. It was to be replaced by the third coin to bear a likeness of one of our presidents, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson nickel continues in production to this day.


Diameter: 21.2 millimeters
Weight: 5 grams
Composition: .750 copper, .250 nickel
Edge: Plain


Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I.Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988.

Cohen, Annette R., and Druley, Ray M., The Buffalo Nickel, Potomac Enterprises, Arlington, VA, 1979.

Lange, David W., The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels, DLRC Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 1992.

Vermeule, Cornelius, Numismatic Art in America, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971.

Wescott, Michael, with Keck, Kendall, The United States Nickel Five-Cent Piece, Bowers and Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1991.

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