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Coins and Context – THE "VDB" CENTS OF 1909

President Theodore Roosevelt was an ardent admirer of President Abraham Lincoln.  He was also committed to changing US coin designs as he saw fit.  The 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909 afforded just such an opportunity.

“TR,” as the first President Roosevelt was known, revered Lincoln, not only as the preserver of the union some 43 years before, but as the quintessential representative of the common man. The one cent coin was selected to celebrate this belief, which much of the public shared.

So, it is not surprising that, when the new Lincoln Cents were released to the public in August of 1909, enthusiastic crowds formed in front of the banks to exchange no more than $10 for sparkling new examples of what would become the longest running design of all US coinage.

One of the New York papers reported that, “The big man down in Wall Street yesterday was the man who had a few of the new Lincoln cents…” In fact, newsboys were hawking the coins at 2 for a nickel, for a much better return on investment than stock traders realized inside the exchange.

The new coins, though popular, were not without controversy.

First, Lincoln was the first actual person to appear on a US coin. Until 1909 all US coins had an allegorical figure, mostly the Goddess of Liberty, or an imaginary Indian Chief, or an American Eagle, or the shield borrowed from the Great Seal of the United States.  Some in the press, opponents of Roosevelt, felt that putting even a former, now deceased President on a coin smacked of empire, rather than democracy.

While this mainly political argument may have resonated with the chattering class, it was the presence of the designer’s initials on the coin that really lead to the higher valuation of the initialed coins among collectors, then and now…

The Lincoln Cent was designed by sculptor Victor David Brenner, a talented Lithuanian immigrant working as a medalist in New York, who’s finely executed bronze plaque of Abraham Lincoln caught the President’s eye.  The plaque had been inspired in part by an 1860 photograph taken by the famed photographer of the American Civil War, Matthew Brady. (The plaque and photo are illustrated at the end of this article.)

On trial strikes, Brenner had simply placed his last name on the reverse of the coin in discrete lettering, in the manner of European designers of the time. This was a practice that was rooted in the coinages of ancient Greece and Rome. As Roosevelt believed that our present coins were rather dull when compared to coinage of the Classical Age, this was perfectly acceptable.

It wasn’t to anyone else with influence. Again, the populist press was chagrined. A simple letter “B” was favored at most. The Chief Engraver at the Philadelphia Mint is said to have suggested the three-letter “VDB” monogram over the solitary “B”, not for any good feeling toward Brenner, but because he wanted no erroneous association with an outsider to the US Mint establishment. (“Barber” begins with a “B” too. And that “B” had been a part of each Barber Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar since 1892. Chief Engraver Barber was likely miffed over the President’s choice of designer for the new Lincoln Cent, and would have been similarly upset about a “B” on a coin he hadn’t designed.)

But the die was already cast, so to speak, and production had begun. When the Treasury Department, bending to the pressure of the press, asked that the “VDB” be changed to “B,” Barber quickly suggested that this would require a three-day halt in production of a coin that was now being hoarded by the public for its novelty -- and would be very costly to the government.  Barber offered a simpler solution: just remove reference to Brenner altogether! And that’s what was done, and that’s why the VDB Lincoln Cents, especially the San Francisco coin, are more valuable.  They became so as soon as the initials were removed.

Epilogue: Through 1917, no reference to Brenner appeared on Lincoln Cents.  Charles Barber passed away in that year, and in 1918 the three letters V D B were placed in an obscure location beneath Lincoln’s shoulder. This can only be seen on coins at a high level of preservation. Once the coin enters circulation, the letters just fade away…