Take a look at this close-up of the obverse (heads side) of the Lincoln penny. Apart from minor tweaking, this side hasn’t changed in over a century, a sign of Abraham Lincoln’s deep hold as an American hero.
Try to imagine this is the first time you’ve seen Lincoln’s face on the penny. Try to imagine it’s the first time you’ve seen any American leader on any circulating U.S. coin.
That was the situation in the summer of 1909, when citizens got their first look at Lincoln on the new penny. Previously, almost every U.S. coin in circulation had shown a symbol of “Liberty” on the obverse — an idealized female figure (originally the “goddess of liberty”). An actual person had never been depicted. U.S. coins were supposed to signal the ideal that animated the body politic, not to herald the greatness of an individual.
The “Indian-head” penny, minted between 1859 and 1909, hadn’t shown an actual Indian, but a white female figure wearing a feather headdress — with “Liberty” spelled out on the headband. As one magazine explained in 1859, “the obverse presents an ideal head of AMERICA. The drooping plumes of the North American Indian give it the character of North America. The head is intended as an illustration of ‘Liberty.’”
At the moment of most intense Lincoln enthusiasm — his 100th birthday in February 1909 — the government announced its initial plans for a new Lincoln coin. Yet many people were reluctant to part with their long-familiar penny.
Some believed that even their most beloved Chief Magistrate should be kept off the metal currency. Putting Lincoln or anyone else on a stamp, or on paper money, was fine, they felt. The solidity and permanence of coinage, however, suggested caution.
The New Orleans Picayune feared setting a precedent that would haunt future generations. Presidents in power might use coinage to help turn themselves into quasi-monarchs, provoking “the transmogrification of the Republic into an empire.”
The New York Times reminded readers that when the U.S. Senate passed a bill in 1792 to put George Washington on the one-dollar coin, the House rejected the idea as “a feature of monarchy.” Since the “American Indian typifies the love of liberty and the possession of it,” the Times campaigned to block the new coin — at the very same time that the paper was avidly promoting the Lincoln centennial events and praising his greatness.
“The idea of further honoring the memory of LINCOLN in this way,” said the Times, “is absurd. That most modest and humble of our Presidents would never have consented to change a long-established custom by putting his own profile on the cent… The Indian must remain.”
The Times soon realized that resistance to the Lincoln penny was futile. The Theodore Roosevelt administration didn’t need congressional approval to make the change, since the Indian-head cent had been circulating for more than 25 years.
By summer, the 12 sub-treasuries in American cities were getting frenzied orders from banks anticipating heavy customer interest in the new coin. All the commotion showed the Times, as it satirically noted, “the Lincoln penny is to start a war of extermination on the one bearing the bust of the red man.” Indian-head pennies would still circulate, but the Mint would no longer make them. In short order, people would be hiding them in drawers.
On August 2, thousands of men and boys lined up at the sub-treasuries to get the maximum allotment of 25 pennies per person. In Washington, D. C., 3,000 customers made it up to the disbursement window on the first day. Instantly a speculative market took over the streets, with newsboys selling pennies for up to a nickel each. By this point, nearly everyone seems to have loved the Lincoln coin.
One Lincoln disciple, 31-year-old Carl Sandburg, countered the Times claim that Lincoln himself would have disapproved. The “great, good man,” said Sandburg, would probably be “perfectly willing” for his face to adorn the penny. True, as symbol-in-chief for “the people,” Lincoln might object to being put on a fancier gold or silver coin. But he’d likely smile at seeing himself on “the cheapest and most common coin in the country.”
Having fought the new penny in February 1909, the Times joined the applause in August. With Lincoln’s “face relaxed” and showing “a benign expression,” the paper conceded, the immigrant medalist Victor David Brenner had delivered a “handsome” coin. “The entire design is noteworthy for its simplicity of line.”
It was soon obvious that people liked this coin so much because it was so artfully designed. Brenner had given the obverse a spacious layout, which allowed the word “Liberty” plenty of room to catch one’s attention in the open area to Lincoln’s left.
Brenner positioned the coin’s date lower than “Liberty,” leaving another wide-open space for Lincoln to gaze into. And Brenner managed to invoke the president’s whole body. This is not a “Lincoln-head” penny. The shoulders and chest convey his authority and equanimity.
If the Lincoln penny ever succumbs to changing times — its utility in the marketplace is already being widely questioned, with some calling it “worthless” — the nation will have lost a beautiful and historic artifact designed for daily, hand-to-hand exchange.