How much are American wheat pennies worth

Thoughts for your penny & colon; the 1 cent piece is worth a century of the type


Every few years there are calls to retire the American penny (as cumbersome and expensive to produce) and to receive rebuttals (for posterity and price stability). I don't know how or when this question will be answered. Personally, I wouldn't miss the gobs of metal in my pockets, but I would miss the lettering. And the numbering.

They are easy to miss when you are crawling to a shop counter for change. Or you can leave them in a bowl if you don't bother adding them around. But the low penny, clinically known as the "one dime piece," has a history of writing all of its own.

Coins are usually a sculpting job, and President Theodore Roosevelt chose Victor David Brenner to design a new penny to mark the centenary of Lincoln's birth in 1909. The new coin broke out of the tradition of allegorical figures and depicted a specific person for the first time. This practice had been explicitly avoided since independence, because many felt that it cost too much like the monarchy that had left it behind. It seemed that Lincoln's 100th birthday was the right time for the ban to fall, and now we find it hard to imagine American currency without a president.

first year of edition 1909

The design process was marred by tension between Brenner and US Mint engraver Charles Barber, who had designed earlier coins and who probably felt he should have received that commission himself. While design, barber and mint director Frank Leach proofing Lincoln's portrait moved towards the center of the coin, where the detail can best be rendered in eye-catching. Troubled by the empty space above Lincoln's head, they decided to add "IN GOD WE TRUST" to the top. This motto had appeared on US coins for years, so Brenner couldn't have been surprised at its inclusion, but I can't happily imagine that he was made aware of the manipulation.

The lettering draws the dissonance between the artist and his client. The "1909" figures quietly rendered, and suggest a tool powered by clay or plaster of paris. Difficult shapes with irregular spacing is more like a part number stamped brusquely in the motto. The motto would not have been resolved for sixty years after 55 billion coins had been produced.

Motto as a phrase from Barber & Leach and 1969 revision

Reversing the burner's design is a wonderfully balanced mass of lettering framed by sheaves of wheat, epic and picturesque in one breath. It is the pocket-sized monument that means coins, speaks for eternity from the perspective of 1909. The craft offered here also refutes the fact that it is the smallest denomination in the country. Brenner's Wheat Sheaf design would also be the last time lettering was so prominent in US coinage. It stayed for fifty years until Frank Gasparro's rendering of the Lincoln Memorial replaced it in 1959 on the occasion of Lincoln's birth Sesquicentennial.

Burner's wheat sheaf design

It's not clear who updated the dies from one year to the next, but it seems obvious enough that different hands and tastes were involved. And yes, I was nuts enough to collect enough pennies to keep track of this. Some years feature forms and tight spacing clenched, other burners back it would be airy. In 1934 the number "3" is shown with a descending dash. This "old" shape disappears for the remainder of the thirties and then reappears in 1943. (The mint pennies made of steel this year to store copper for military use. Unfortunately, the steel pennies were widely mistaken for pennies. The metal also began after rusted a few months of use. And they ravaged numerous vending machines that expected non-magnetic coins. Copper returned in 1944 and the mint spent the next twenty years filtering the steel pennies out of circulation.)

The number "7" had an equally arbitrary treatment. Every ten years between 1917 and 1967, before settling down with a descending curve in 1974, it appeared in a different form.

To accommodate the escalating rise in the price of copper, the coin changed the penny composition in 1983, from 95 percent copper, almost entirely zinc, with a thin layer of copper to retain the traditional color. The change in material also reduced the coin weight by 20 percent, inadvertently dramatizing its dwindling value. When dies were worn around the same time, flattening made the coin flatter overall. The numbers became lighter and more monotonous, modeling the sculpture's loss of quality. The trend towards flat surfaces has gradually continued since then, and now a penny feels more like a laser print than the tiny sculpture it actually is.

Around 480 billion pfennigs have been minted since 1909, and every single one of them is still "live" currency. By some estimates 200 million Lincoln wheat pennies are still in circulation, so it's not uncommon to have one in your pocket - I amassed about thirty over six months of daily transactions. So if you haven't already, check out your bags and handbags for some overlooked history.

Tobias Frere-Jones is one of the world's leading font designers. He created some of the most widely used fonts in the world.

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