Today we celebrate the birthdate of Abraham Lincoln. Born in 1809 in a log cabin in Kentucky, Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling, yet he had ambitions that led him to become a lawyer, congressman, and president of the U.S. he brought the country through the ordeal of the Civil War and became an icon of presidential greatness for many.
In 1909, upon the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Congress authorized minting a new penny to replace the familiar “Indian Head” cent. The new Lincoln penny, designed by Victor David Brenner, was of the same size and bronze alloy as the old one.
The portrayal of Lincoln on the new penny marked the first time the likeness of a real person was featured upon a U.S. coin, for the others were of Lady Liberty or an eagle. To the left of Lincoln’s face was the word “Liberty,” and to the right was the date, 1909.
The new penny was the first cent to have the motto “In God We Trust,” engraved above Lincoln’s head. Notably, the designer’s initials, V.D.B., were on the reverse side, beneath two wheatstalks arching around the words: “one cent.”
North Dakotans joined a national craze in August to gain possession of the new Lincoln pennies. Some banks got an allotment of 25 or 50 pennies and were giving them away. For example, the First National Bank in Hope, a town in Steele County, gave a free Lincoln penny on Market Day to all “boys and girls under twelve years of age” who wanted one.
Others tried to cash in on the frenzy. In Grand Forks, which reportedly got “very few of the new Lincoln pennies . . . one little fellow” got one and tried to sell it for ten cents. “In Fargo, there was a veritable run on the banks” by those wishing to get some new Lincoln “V.D.B.” pennies.
The penny grab did not last long, however, for the U.S. Mint soon removed the designer’s initials, believing the initials were too much of a personal advertisement for Victor Brenner. But mint officials later relented, placing a microscopic “VDB” under Lincoln’s shoulder in 1918.
It is unknown how many North Dakota penny-pinchers kept their 1909 pennies, but the 1909 San Francisco Mint, “S” V.D.B. coin is now worth $350 to $1,200, and that’s not small change.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.
Centennial Book Committee, Hope Through The Century: Hope, N.D., 1882-1982 (Fargo: Knight Printing Co., 1982), p. 74.
“After The New Pennies,” Grand Forks Herald, August 11, 1909.
“A Number of the Banks Over the State,” Grand Forks Herald, August 22, 1909.
“V.D.B. Cent Doomed,” Washington Post, August 6, 1909, p. 20.
“New Lincoln Pennies Here,” New York Times, August 4, 1909, p. 6.
“Funeral of Victor D. Brenner,” New York Times, April 7, 1924, p. 2.
“New Dies Ordered For Lincoln Cents,” New York Times, August 6, 1909, p. 6.
“New Lincoln Pennies Are Without Initials,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 18, 1909, p. 6
“New Penny In Pocket Makes Him Feel Rich,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 6, 1909, p. 5.
“Change in Lincoln Pennies,” Minneapolis Tribune, August 6, 1909, p. 1.
R.S. Yeoman, Handbook of United States Coins, 2009: The Official Blue Book (Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, 2008), p. 10, 54-55.