It’s perhaps hard to believe that 10 years have already passed since the first Lincoln Union Shield Cent emerged in 2010. It came about as the fifth and final reverse redesign in fewer than 13 months following a successful circulating four-coin commemorative program played out over the course of 2009 showcasing Abraham Lincoln’s colorful life from his childhood to presidency. The United States Mint’s plan was to follow up the Lincoln Bicentennial cents, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the 16th president’s birth in 1809, with a final and permanent reverse design honoring Lincoln’s courageous presidency during the Civil War and his ultimate ability to restore a divided nation as a single Union. He didn’t live long to see his achievement; he was assassinated on April 14, 1865, less than a week after rebel leader Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to the Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia to effectively end the Civil War.
The Lincoln Union Shield Cent was approved as part of the Presidential $1 Coin Act, signed by President George W. Bush on December 22, 2005. Early design concepts pitched by the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) for the new Lincoln cent reverse called for a motif showcasing 13 wheat sheaves bound as a ring to symbolize American unity as one nation. However, that proposal was eventually withdrawn as it too closely resembled a design seen on some German coins of the 1920s. The present Lincoln cent reverse design was born during meetings of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), members of which recommended a motif incorporating a Union shield with a scroll declaring the coin’s one-cent denomination.
The United States Mint issued a statement narrating the symbology behind the Lincoln cent reverse design, saying the 13 stripes and the horizontal bar on the Union shield design “represent the states joined in one compact union to support the Federal government, represented by the horizontal bar above.” The reverse design was created by artist Lyndall Bass and sculpted by sculptor-engraver Joseph Menna, while the obverse motif of Lincoln, designed in 1909 by Victor David Brenner, was reengraved using the original, century-old galvano during die preparation. The remodeled Lincoln cent, sporting its retooled obverse and brand-new reverse, was ceremoniously unveiled by the United States Mint on November 12, 2009.
The coins went into production in time for the first 2010 Union Shield Lincoln Cents to circulate in Puerto Rico during January 2010, a time when the island was experiencing a severe shortage of one-cent coins. The new Lincoln cents began appearing in the mainland United States weeks later, with the official release occurring on February 11, 2010, when the actual coins were unveiled during a special ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. While many longtime collectors added the new Lincoln Union Shield Cent to their existing penny collections, the much-publicized release of the new coin prompted a spike of new Lincoln cent collectors.
Production of the Lincoln Union Shield Cent has been relatively rudimentary since 2010, but there have been some notable entries to come about over the past decade. The most noteworthy event occurred in 2017 when the United States Mint placed a “P” mintmark on Lincoln cents produced that year at the Philadelphia Mint. This one-year-only circulating special was done to honor the 225th anniversary of the United States Mint, which was established in Philadelphia in 2017. The 2017-P Lincoln cent represents the first time the “P” mintmark from Philadelphia has ever appeared on a United States one-cent coin, and the occasion deservedly made many headlines in numismatic media and even in the general press. A couple years later, in 2019, the West Point Mint struck “W”-mintmark uncirculated, proof, and reverse proof Lincoln cents as a bonus inclusion in that year’s uncirculated, proof, and reverse proof sets, respectively; this marked the first time the “W” mintmark had ever appeared on the Lincoln cent.
Although there have been no major die varieties or errors attributed to the Lincoln Union Shield Cent to date, that does not mean there have not been the discoveries of some interesting anomalies among this 10-year-old subtype. Among these are a slew of minor obverse and reverse doubled dies mostly originating from the Philadelphia Mint and discerned primarily within the inscriptions on those Philly-struck cents, as noted by variety experts such as John Wexler and those at The Combined Organization of Numismatic Error Collectors of America, or CONECA (http://www.conecaonline.org). Collectors also look for the more common garden-variety oddities among Lincoln Union Shield Cents, including die breaks and off-center strikes.
The Lincoln Union Shield Cent has proven popular among novice and seasoned collectors alike, many of whom are either beginning their numismatic journeys by collecting these coins or focusing a significant part of their hobby time on building existing sets of Lincoln cents. And, it is interesting to note that through both serendipitous timing and concerted effort, the small-cent appears to be cycling through 50-year periods of reinvention. While the Indian Head cent, designed by James B. Longacre, was released in 1859, it was 50 years later that the first Lincoln cent debuted in 1909 to mark what was then the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. Moving forward, it was 50 years later, during the Lincoln Sesquicentennial in 1959, that the Lincoln cent’s original wheat ears reverse was replaced with a design by Frank Gasparro depicting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Finally, it was 50 years henceforth in 2009 that the widely familiar Lincoln Memorial motif gave way to the four Lincoln Bicentennial designs culminating with the Union Shield design in 2010.
Will the Lincoln Union Shield Cent live for (at least) 50 years before being put out to numismatic pasture like its predecessors? Surely, many long predicted in the 1980s and ‘90s that the one-cent coin would have been long discontinued by now, rendered obsolete by the forces of inflation and rising metals and production costs. As things sit during the 10th anniversary of the Lincoln Union Shield Cent in 2020, the total cost of facilitating the striking and distribution of each one-cent piece hovers around 2 cents per coin. Yet, as other nations scrap low-denomination coinage akin to our one-cent coin, including Canada, which eliminated its one-cent coin in 2012, the United States penny lives to see another day.
According to many recent polls conducted on the matter, the Lincoln cent remains overwhelmingly popular with the public. A 2019 survey by Americans for Common Cents (ACC) reveals that 68% of the general public wants to keep the penny. That figure is actually up a tick from 2012, when the organization based in Washington, D.C., found 67% of Americans wished to keep the one-cent coin in production. Perhaps the one-cent coin hangs on because some folks worry about the automatic “inflation” that would set in if cash transaction were rounded up to the next nearest denomination, the nickel. Maybe the tenacious zinc and copper lobbyists in Congress have effectively dissuaded lawmakers from officially banishing the one-cent coin from production. Or, it could be that Americans are simply nostalgic for the “penny” and wish to keep it around. At any rate, it appears the Lincoln Union Shield Cent is here to stay. And those who love the Lincoln cent surely wouldn’t have it any other way.