Art In The Everyday

Art In The Everyday: The Lincoln Penny

by Maxwell Tielman

I remember vividly the first time I encountered the new 2010 penny. I had stopped at a local bodega to grab a snack and had just handed over my credit card at the cash register when the shopkeeper informed me that there was a $10 minimum for cards. Although such minimums are common practice in New York and many shops don’t even accept cards at all, this always comes as a surprise to me. Apologizing, I turned my pockets inside out to scrounge up enough change to pay. As I counted out the various coins that my pockets had to offer, a bright, shiny piece of copper caught my eye.

It was a penny, but one unlike any I had ever seen. Instead of the typical reverse-side Lincoln Memorial, this one featured a simple striped shield with a scroll that read “One Cent.” “What’s this?” I exclaimed, a bit too excitedly, and paused to examine the coin’s new design. It was minimal yet striking, and with its reference to nineteenth-century America, delightfully au courant. “It’s so cute!” I said before realizing that I was holding up the line. I threw the penny into my pile of change and handed it over to the shopkeeper. Somewhat amused by my bizarre infatuation with a practically worthless coin, she handed the shiny penny back to me, a small token to apologize for the store’s inconvenient $10 minimum.

Although this strange re-gifted penny had the monetary value of literally one cent, I couldn’t be happier with it. Charmed not only by the shopkeeper’s generosity, but also by the new penny’s design, I placed it back in my pocket where it suddenly acquired a newfound, almost talismanic power. It was at this moment that I began to see coins not just as currency, but also as art objects. Indeed, like most things in our world, coins are conceived of and designed by people (although it might be easy to forget this fact). Just like the work of art that hangs on the wall, coins have artists behind them. The penny, despite its minuscule value, is no exception. — Max

Read on to learn more about the Lincoln penny after the jump . . .

Above image: Victor David Brenner, the original designer of the Lincoln cent

The history of the Lincoln penny dates to the early days of the twentieth century. The president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, was a man of numerous and far-reaching interests. Although he is well known for his pointedly macho hobbies and for instructing people to “carry a big stick,” Roosevelt was also a loyal patron and supporter of the arts. A man who clearly considered himself something of a connoisseur, Roosevelt took his time in office as an opportunity to bring new talent to the United States Mint, an institution that he found sorely lacking in imagination. Among the numerous artists that Roosevelt brought to the US Mint was Victor David Brenner, a Litvak-American sculptor who had studied at New York’s Cooper Union and Paris’ Académie Julian. Roosevelt came upon Brenner’s work when he sat for him in 1908. Roosevelt was immediately taken with the sculptor’s work, especially a large-scale plaque of Abraham Lincoln. It would seem that Lincoln was destined to become a recurring subject for Brenner because the sculptor was hired to design the 1909 penny to celebrate the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. Although the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth was historic in itself, the creation of the 1909 penny also marked an important event — numismatically speaking, at least. Brenner’s penny design marked the first time that an actual person was featured on an American coin.

As of this writing, Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln has been a mainstay on the American penny for over a century. That is not to say that the coin has gone unchanged. On the contrary, the coin’s reverse side has undergone significant changes since its 1909 inception. When Brenner first designed the Lincoln cent, the reverse side simply featured the phrase “One Cent,” bracketed by a wreath of wheat stems. This design remained unchanged until 1959, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, when the US Mint unveiled its Lincoln Memorial penny, designed by engraver Frank Gasparro.

The Lincoln Memorial remained in place on the penny’s reverse for 50 years until, for Lincoln’s 200th birthday, a series of four new designs was introduced for the coin’s reverse side. To be produced for only one year, each of the four designs referenced a different chapter in Abraham Lincoln’s life, from his log-cabin days to his presidency.

The Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 stipulated that, after the 2009 series of pennies, the 2010 penny should “bear an image emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” Out of 18 competing coins designed by artists from around the country, the Commission of Fine Arts chose the simple yet absolutely classic Union Shield image designed by the painter Lyndall Bass.

In his exhaustively researched The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents, coin historian David W. Lange writes, “The one-cent piece [today] is a complete anachronism. It no longer has sufficient value to purchase any product or service except when presented in multiples, yet to do so is to invoke the disapproval of clerks and cashiers.” Despite this, however, it’s difficult to imagine life without the penny, with its warm copper hue and familiar portrait of Abraham Lincoln. To hold a Lincoln cent is to invoke memories of breaking open piggy banks, running for ice cream trucks and marching to the corner store to buy penny candy. Although one might be happier with a $20 bill, no other form of currency is deemed “lucky” when found heads-up on the ground. Indeed, the penny seems to hold a special place in our hearts, as evidenced by the countless artworks, craft projects and collections it has inspired. To end this love letter to an underappreciated object of design, here are a few other pieces of ephemera, inspired by the desire to collect pennies. (Thanks to David W. Lange, author of the fabulous and informative book, Coin Collecting Boards of the 1930s & 1940s, for supplying the images!)

Above image: A 1940 Collection Board for the rather politically incorrect Indian Head penny, the Lincoln cent’s predecessor, produced from 1856 to 1909. Image courtesy of David W. Lange.

Above image: Another Indian Head penny board, this one from 1935. Image courtesy of David W. Lange.

Above image: A 1935 Lincoln Coin Board given as a free gift from funeral director David J. Malloy. Image courtesy of David W. Lange.

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  • Fantastic! Beatifully written and researched! There is nothing I love more than brand new currency! And foreign coins are just the bees knees!

  • I hate to get all grad student on you guys, but pennies aren’t ephemera. Ephemera, as per the Ephemera Society of America, “includes a broad range of minor (and sometimes major) everyday documents intended for one-time or short-term use.” So, things like advertisements and postcards, but not pennies.

  • This is how much I depend on my debit card… I didn’t know there was a new penny! And not to get all master’s graduate on you, but pennies are kind of one-time or short-term use to most people so I DO think they fit under the umbrella of ephemera. But who cares about minute (questionable) technicalities in an fun, light-hearted, informative post.

  • This is why I love Design Sponge! – I have an obsession with the penny – it’s an inspired design and I can’t resist copper. Who knew anyone else did? – Thank you!

  • Sadly, in Canada, our penny will become obsolete this year. It, too, is our only copper coin. I’m sure many Canadians don’t care but I hate to the see the penny go.

  • This was a very charming post. It’s nice to stop and think about the history of the little things we take for granted!

  • Fun :-) Anyone else put drops of water on the backs of pennies as a kid to magnify the Lincoln statue inside the memorial?

  • My Mom calls the pennies from the early 20th century w/ the “One Cent” on the back wheat pennies and I’m not quite sure why, but this was certainly interesting. Her father collected coins so she’s got all kinds of knowledge about this stuff.

    • Lincoln Cents minted from 1909 to 1958 have wheat stalks bordering the reverse side of the coin. The wheat stalks are the reason why these older cents were called “wheat pennies” or “wheaties”. In 1959 this design element was changed to the familiar Lincoln Memorial in celebration of Lincolns birth 150 years earlier.

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