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A wheat penny is a one-cent coin that was produced by the United States Mint from 1909 to 1958. Its name comes from the design on the reverse side of the coin, which featured a sheave of wheat on each side and the phrases "ONE CENT" and "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" in between. Across the top was the Latin phrase "E PLURIBUS UNUM," which means "out of many, one" and has been considered an unofficial motto of the U.S. The obverse, or front, of the coin featured a likeness of former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, the phrase "IN GOD WE TRUST," the word "LIBERTY" and the year in which the coin was produced. Also known as a Lincoln wheat cent or wheatback penny, the wheat penny is a long-admired collectible item with rich historical value.
First Issued in 1909
Wheat pennies were produced starting in 1909 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. They were first issued on 2 August 1909 and were the first U.S. coins to feature a real person. As the coins began to circulate, controversy soon broke out over the initials V.D.B., which were located on the bottom of the reverse side of the coins and referred to the wheat penny's designer, Victor David Brenner. Many people thought that the New York sculptor’s initials did not need to be on the coin and were too prominent. Other people did not understand the meaning behind the initials or their purpose.
In response to the controversy, U.S. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh quickly ordered the removal of Brenner's initials. About 28 million wheat pennies that featured the initials were produced by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia in 1909. Only about 484,000 were produced by the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, which added a small "S" to the coin, under the year. Known as 1909-S VDB wheat pennies, the rarity of the coins minted in San Francisco has made them one of the U.S. coins that is the most popular among collectors.
A 50-Year Run
The wheat penny continued to be produced through 1958, with a few changes. In 1918, the controversial initials were reinstated. This time, however, they were located on the front side of the coin, just below Lincoln’s shoulder. In 1959, 50 years after the wheat penny was first issued, the familiar sheaves of wheat on the reverse side were replaced by a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial, officially ending the wheat penny’s run. This change was made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
Wheat pennies were made of different metals at different times, with the main reason for the changes being the need for copper to be used for other purposes from 1943-1946, during World War II. Originally, wheat pennies were made of bronze, an alloy that is 95% copper, with the other 5% being an alloy of tin and zinc. In 1943, the composition was changed to zinc-plated steel, which resulted in silver-colored coins that were often mistaken for dimes, the U.S. 10-cent coins. A year later, the U.S. Mint abandoned production of the steel pennies and began melting down used bullet casings to produce brass wheat pennies that were 95% copper, with most of the other 5% being zinc. Starting in 1946, after World War II, the original metal composition for wheat pennies was used again and continued until their run ended in 1958.
Like the U.S. pennies produced more recently, wheat pennies are 0.75 inches (19.05 mm) in diameter. They are about 0.06 inches (1.5 mm) thick. The weight of a wheat penny depends on its metal composition. Those that are mostly copper weigh about 0.11 ounces (3.1 g). Wheat pennies that are mostly steel weigh about 0.095 ounces (2.7 g).