Today in History: Lincoln Memorial penny replaces the “Wheat Penny” in 1959

August 7th, 2013

On August 7, 1959, the redesigned penny featuring the Lincoln Memorial entered circulation, ending the 50-year run of the “wheat penny.” Designed by engraver Frank Gasparro in honor of Lincoln’s 150th birthday, the surprising redesign was met with great enthusiasm from the public.

There have been several distinct iterations of the penny, with both its design and composition changing dramatically since America’s founding. The first official cent of the United States, named the Fugio Cent, was reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin in 1787. The front of the coin contained a sun dial and the caption “Mind your Business,” while its reverse included a 13-link chain and the motto “We are One.”  Early versions of the penny were 100 percent copper, compared to modern times’ 2.5 percent copper composition, and weighed five times more than modern pennies.

No single design of the penny remained in circulation for very long, with subjects ranging from Lady Liberty in the early 19th century to the “Flying Eagle” and “Indian Head” designs of the late 19th century. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the design of the “Lincoln Wheat” penny, which featured Lincoln’s iconic sitting pose on the front, with two sheaves of wheat on the reverse. It was the first U.S. penny that contained a portrait other than Lady Liberty, and it was minted to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday.

Fifty years later, an informal competition fielded 21 entries to modify the reverse side of the penny, and the Secretary of the Treasury chose Gasparro’s Lincoln Memorial design in 1959. According to the New York Times, when Gasparro introduced himself to strangers as a sculptor and was asked where they might find his work, he often replied, “It’s in your pocket.” Gasparro’s initials, “FG” can be found to the right of the base of the Lincoln Memorial. At the time of Gasparro’s death in 2001, more than 100 billion of his pennies were in circulation. In addition to designing the Lincoln Memorial penny, Gasparro also created the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which he called his proudest accomplishment.  

The penny was once again redesigned in 2009 to celebrate Lincoln’s bicentennial, and featured four different designs that highlight a different aspect of Lincoln’s life, from his early childhood in Kentucky to his adolescence in Indiana to his career in the Illinois Statehouse and finally his presidency. The most recent design of the penny, released in 2010, depicts a shield with thirteen stripes representing Lincoln’s defense of the Union.

Suggested Activity for Students:

You can use the penny in your classroom for a close reading of American symbols. Ask students to assume they’re strangers from another planet, and they have just found this penny artifact and can miraculously read the language. Carefully examine the image of Lincoln and the mottoes (“In God We Trust,” “Liberty”) on the front of the coin. Then, consider the structure and motto (“E Pluribus Unum”) depicted on the reverse. Why these particular images and statements? How do they relate to one another? What can we learn about America from this artifact, and what elements of our national story does this coin communicate to us? What do America’s coins tell us about our national identity?

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