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Coin Collecting: Lincoln Wheat Pennies (History & Value)

Updated on June 2, 2016
A (U.S.) 'Lincoln wheat penny,' or 'wheatie.'  These pennies were minted from 1909-1958.
A (U.S.) 'Lincoln wheat penny,' or 'wheatie.' These pennies were minted from 1909-1958. | Source

Introduction.

A Common Scenario for the Novice Coin Collector

You're standing in line at the gas station after fueling, silently congratulating yourself on having stopped the pump — precisely — at an even dollar amount. There won't be any small change weighing down your pockets after this transaction! However, it seems that the gentleman in front of you can't say the same. You watch, sympathetically, as he hands the cashier a few bills and receives a pile of jingling coins in return; dumped unceremoniously into his cupped hands, outstretched in supplication as though receiving alms at church. As he turns to leave your eyes meet, and you smile apologetically in commiseration before he moves off towards the exit.

You step up to the counter and hand the cashier some bills, confidently indicating your pump number. He quickly scans his screen and locates your transaction, then nods approvingly as he moves to give you a single bill in change.

But, wait!

Out of the corner of your eye you spot a rather enticingly arrayed candy bar rack, and suddenly find yourself wondering how long it has been since lunch. You hesitate, weighing the merits of having light pockets against unsatiated hunger. You look back to the cashier, who arches an eyebrow at you questioningly.

Lincoln Wheat Penny

U.S. coins commemorating Abraham Lincoln, which feature a bust of the late President on one side and two adjacent ears of wheat on the other side, are known as Lincoln wheat pennies. These coins were minted continuously from 1909-1958, when they were replaced by the Lincoln Memorial penny that is commonly seen today. As with other pennies, wheat cents have a face value of $0.01, and a collectible value which varies depending on several factors.

Your stomach rumbles ...

Two minutes later you are sitting in your vehicle — A pile of change in one hand, half-eaten Snickers bar in the other — pondering the frailty of the human condition. You glance ruefully at the pile of coins in your palm, but then notice something peculiar. You hastily polish off your candy bar and disregard the wrapper, then lift up one of the coins to inspect more closely. This penny seems different from the others, with stocks of wheat depicted on either side, and the words One Cent displayed prominently in the center. You flip the coin over to search for the date of mintage, then gasp in surprise, marveling at your good fortune!

1944! Surely this coin must be worth a great deal ... Right??

Section I.

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Misconceptions About Lincoln Wheat Pennies

If the above scenario seems familiar, that is because it is. Every day another non-numismatist (coin collector)1 discovers a Lincoln "wheat penny," or "wheat cent" in their pocket change, and wonders if they have not stumbled upon a rare treasure. In fact, many a numismatist — including hobbyists and professionals — got their start in the same way!

Numismatics

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "Numismatics is the study or collection of coins, tokens ... paper money and sometimes related objects (as medals)." It follows, then, that a coin collector is a numismatist.

To be clear, the vast majority of wheat pennies that turn up in circulation are not going to be worth more than fifty cents, or so. Some will be worth considerably less! That said, it is entirely possible to discover a coin (penny or otherwise) with a numismatic value of much more, just statistically not as likely. To use an analogy, wheat pennies turning up in transactions similar to the one above can be thought of as being scratch-off lottery tickets (i.e., most will not be "winners" in the monetary sense, but some will be).

The collectible value of any U.S. coin is determined by several key factors, including:

  • The condition of the coin
  • The total mintage, or "Rarity," for coins of that type, and,
  • The marketability, or "Demand" for a coin. (For simplicity's sake, marketability is not considered in this article.)

Error Coins

Any discussion about wheat pennies would be incomplete without mention of two extraordinary error coins: the 1943 Copper Penny and the 1944 Steel Penny. Therefore, your author has dedicated a section to these two curiosities, after the main body of this article!

The cultural value of a Lincoln wheat penny is a reward in and of itself!
The cultural value of a Lincoln wheat penny is a reward in and of itself!

There also exists another sub-sect of numismatics that deals entirely with (what are known as) "error coins."2 Condition and total mintage also play a role in the value assigned to these types of coins, but mintage in particular will factor less in determining value than that of the type of error being considered. Error coins are not the focus of this article, however, and the information described in the following sections pertains to non-error, or "standard," wheat pennies. (However, a supplemental section — entitled Two Extraordinary Error Coins: 1943 Copper Penny & 1944 Steel Penny is provided at Section VI of this article, discussing two very famous Lincoln wheat penny error coins.)

Section II.

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Numismatics and the Love of History

Before delving into the specific characteristics of individual coins, your author would first like to take a moment to explore the history of wheat pennies. At heart, every numismatist can be said to be a lover of history, and more so of the tangible sense of history that comes from holding relics of a bygone era. In the satirical example at the beginning of this article, the protagonist may not necessarily have been holding a coin of immense monetary worth, but was certainly holding a coin of immense cultural worth! Just imagine:

Humphrey Bogart
Humphrey Bogart

During the 1940s, the devastation of humanity's Second World War ravaged continental Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The allied forces prepared and carried out a massive invasion of Normandy,3 finally driving back the entrenched forces of Hitler's Third Reich at a terrible cost. In the Pacific theatre,4 U.S. Marines fought tooth-and-nail to beat back the Japanese Imperialists, one island at a time. Franklin Delano Roosevelt5 was our President, Humphrey Bogart6 was our nation's leading man, and Ingrid Bergman7 was America's Sweetheart. Who can say whether or not the penny held by our Snickers bar aficionado had not been carried, at one time, in the pockets of: A soldier storming that French beach; a Marine in a foxhole on Okinawa; or in the pockets of Bergman, Bogart, or even Roosevelt himself?

Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman

Although coins have been used in America since colonial days, it wasn't until Congress passed The Coinage Act of 1792,8 which established the U.S. Mint,9 that production and usage of coins like the Lincoln wheat penny became possible. Before then, Americans had employed a hodgepodge of foreign, state issued, and trial-run coinage, running the gamut from Spanish Pieces of Eight10 to Massachusetts Coppers.11 In fact, more than two hundred years later, U.S. coins continue to morph and evolve, taking on different incremental values, visages, and metallic compositions — albeit, in a more orderly fashion.

To the discerning eye, this phenomenon offers insight into much more than the simple history of mintage or face value of this or that coin. Numismatics informs us as to where "We, the People" come from, where we are, and where we are going. To study the evolution of the coinage of our nation is, quite frankly, to glimpse a timeline detailing our (still-evolving) national identity.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany.

Victor David Brenner and the 'Wheat Ear' Design

The wheat ear design found on (the obverse of) U.S. pennies minted from 1909-1958, was the first used for our nation's long enduring Lincoln penny.

In 1959, this obverse design was replaced by a miniature relief of the Lincoln Memorial, which endured all the way through 2008!

Section III.

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Lincoln Wheat Penny History

As far as the family of Lincoln pennies12 are concerned, it is instructive to consider that these coins are the first of only two forms of (currently minted) U.S. legal tender that depicts an image of Abraham Lincoln. The second — the familiar five dollar paper bill13 — was not commissioned until 1928. The Lincoln penny has gone through several incarnations since its inception, and wheat pennies are the first of those:

In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt14 commissioned a new design for the U.S. penny, to commemorate the centennial anniversary of our sixteenth President's birth. Roosevelt, himself a great admirer of Lincoln, further instructed that the coin's design was to be based on the work of Victor David Brenner,15 a notable metallurgist of the time. Brenner, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, at first submitted a design which included his entire name, but the Director of the Mint16 objected, and the initials "V.D.B." were instead substituted on the bottom reverse (or "tails") side.

Victor David Brenner
Victor David Brenner

Apparently, even this was deemed too much, for the public outcry over Brenner's initials was so great that they were removed entirely mid-way through 1909. (In fact, it took nine more years for the initials to sneak back onto the obverse — or "heads" — side of the coins. In 1918, the initials were again included in the design, now in a very much diminished state on Lincoln's shoulder!) As a result of this controversy, only four hundred and eighty-four thousand of the 1909-S VDB pennies ever made it into circulation, making them the most rare of Lincoln cents ever produced, en masse. These coins are highly sought after by collectors, and those fortunate enough to stumble across one — in very fine condition, or better — may rest comfortably with the knowledge that they hold a coin worth $1000-$2500 (depending on the overall grading).17

The 1909-S VDB penny & 1909 VDB penny

The S on a 1909-S VDB penny represents the San Francisco Mint.18 Contrarily, a 1909 VDB penny is a coin that was produced in the Philadelphia Mint.19 A total of four hundred and eighty-four thousand of the San Francisco coins were minted, as opposed to a whopping twenty million for their Philadelphia counterparts!

In any case, despite a somewhat tumultuous beginning, the Lincoln penny has since enjoyed a remarkable run. Brenner's design is still employed on the obverse, and the coin has undergone very few changes in over a century of service. Likewise, the wheat ear reverse endured for many years, and was only discontinued in 1958, having been replaced by a relief of the Lincoln Memorial.20 As such, wheat pennies were produced in the United States for forty-nine years, from the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver Mints.21

Obverse and reverse of a '1909-S VDB' penny, from the San Francisco Mint.  Brenner's initials can be seen in the bottom center of the reverse.
Obverse and reverse of a '1909-S VDB' penny, from the San Francisco Mint. Brenner's initials can be seen in the bottom center of the reverse.
1943 steel penny, also known as a 'Steelie' (obverse and reverse).
1943 steel penny, also known as a 'Steelie' (obverse and reverse).

The 1943 Steel Wheat Penny (or 'Steelie')

The 1943 steel (wheat) penny was produced for one year during the Second World War, due to the U.S. Government's determination that copper should be diverted towards the war effort. By 1944, however, it was decided that the benefits gained from this substitution were not significant enough to warrant the effort, and so copper penny production once again resumed in the U.S. Mints.

Wheat pennies were composed of ninety-five percent copper and five percent zinc, for all but one of the years that they were in production. The exception occurred in 1943, when Congress deemed that copper should be diverted from the U.S. Mint, in order to aid in the production of war-time materials which required the metal. As a result, for that entire year, pennies were made from zinc-coated steel. These 1943 steel pennies (or "Steelies")22 still appear in circulation today, and are often brought into coin shops and hobby stores to be appraised by numismatists with, perhaps, long-suffering expressions.

In reality, these coins are quite common, and a steel wheat penny in very fine condition may be expected to hold an approximate worth of fifty cents to one dollar. That said, it should be noted that an uncirculated (never used) 1943-S steel penny may be worth up to twenty-five dollars. Likewise, a Denver or Philadelphia produced 1943 steel penny, in uncirculated condition, may be worth anywhere from ten to fifteen dollars. However, older coins found in pocket change are not generally encountered in such condition, nor are they appraised by the same standards as coins received directly from the Mint.

Section IV.

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Novice Coin Appraisal

To the uninitiated, the art and science of coin grading23 can get very complicated, very quickly. Worse, several different grading scales are commonly employed by numismatists, and each of these have their own associated terminology. Add to that entirely different grading conditions for circulated and uncirculated coins — and, indeed, even for different grades of uncirculated coins — and the potential for confusion increases logarithmically!

U.S. Mint of Origin

The mint of origin for a penny is determined by a single letter — S, or D — located on the obverse underneath the date, for coins made at the San Francisco Mint or Denver Mint, respectively. Wheat pennies produced at the Philadelphia Mint have no letter indicating mintage.

For hobbyists, it is simply unnecessary to become bogged down by the finer points of coin grading, in order to start enjoying numismatics. Details for a simple scale, based on seven different grades assignable to circulated coins, is provided below. Generally speaking, coins found in "Very Fine" (or VF) condition or better are most desirous.

A simple grading scale for evaluating circulated coins:

  • G - Good: Major design elements for the coin are outlined, but the details are gone. Also, the date may not be sharp (but should be readable), and the rim may not be complete.

The PNG

As you continue in your pursuit of numismatics, you will want to establish a relationship with reputable coin dealers. Run a search for members of the Professional Numismatists Guild in your area. The PNG is the premier association among numismatics enthusiasts, and members must meet strict requirements before joining. You can trust a coin dealer who belongs to the Guild to take pride in his or her expertise, as well as to conduct themselves with an emphasis on professionalism, honesty, and integrity.

  • VG - Very Good: Major design elements, letters, and numerals for the coin are worn, but are still clear.
  • F - Fine: The major elements of the coin are still clear, but the details are worn away.
  • VF - Very fine: The coin has light, even wear on the high points, but all lettering and design details are sharp.
  • XF - Extremely Fine: All design details on the coin are sharp, and some mint luster remains.

  • UNC – Uncirculated: No wear on the coin at all, although there may be some contact marks and dulling of the luster.
  • BU – Brilliant Uncirculated: A perfect coin with bright, consistent luster, and no scratches or contact marks.

For an affordable and reliable place to keep your growing wheat penny collection, you can't go wrong with an H.E. Harris and Co. Lincoln Cents Folder!

Section V.

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Wheat Penny Key Dates

The Folder for 1909 - 1940 is shown above. Also available is the H.E. Harris and Co. Lincoln Cents Folder for 1941 - 1974. (Together, these two folders encompass the entire period of mintage for Lincoln wheat pennies.)

Recall the comparison made earlier between Lincoln wheat pennies and lottery tickets. Though it is true that most of the particular coins of this variety that remain in circulation today will not yield substantial monetary returns, there are several exceptions to this rule. The coins listed in the following table are these exceptions, and may be thought of as the "winning lottery tickets" among the Lincoln wheat penny family.

1943 copper pennies and 1944 steel pennies are not included in the following table of values, as they are considered to be "error coins." Section VI is dedicated to these particular Lincoln wheat cents. Also, note that values for pennies in VF (Very Fine) condition are listed, as opposed to other classifications on the coin grading scale. When dealing with circulated pennies found in pocket change, those bearing the characteristics of coins in VF condition may be thought of as having "average" monetary worth to collectors (i.e., coins with lesser grades than VF command significantly lower premiums, while coins which rank higher on the grading scale will fetch much higher premiums).

Table of Wheat Penny Key Dates (Non-Error Coins)

Year
Value (in VF Condition)
1909 S VDB
$1,100.00
1909 S
$150.00
1914 D
$450.00
1922
$1,750.00
1931 S
$80.00
1955
$1,150.00

For an inclusive listing of the values for standard wheat pennies from 1909-1958, for coins at every stage of the appraisal scale, check out this (free) table courtesy of hobbyzine.24

Section VI.

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Two Extraordinary Error Coins: 1943 Copper Penny & 1944 Steel Penny

Although error coins are not the focus of this article, any discussion about wheat pennies would be incomplete without mentioning two specific errors, that occurred as a result of the hasty war-time switch from copper to steel, in 1943. The odds of encountering one, or both, types of the following coins in circulation are slightly less than the probable odds of being struck by lightning. Still, in the miraculous event that a person should be fortunate enough to run into such exceedingly rare coins — perhaps after purchasing a Snickers bar — it is best to be informed!

A 1943 copper penny (obverse and reverse).  There are forty known to be in existence.
A 1943 copper penny (obverse and reverse). There are forty known to be in existence.
  • 1943 Copper Penny - At the beginning of 1943, some copper material was left in a coin press, and was subsequently used to make pennies before the switch was made to steel. 1943 copper pennies, then, were the only copper pennies known to have been minted in a year where all other pennies were made of steel. Eight of these coins are known to exist, and in very fine condition or better, a 1943 copper penny is worth anywhere from $60,000 to $85,000.

The elusive 1944 steel penny (obverse).  Less than a dozen of these are known to exist.
The elusive 1944 steel penny (obverse). Less than a dozen of these are known to exist.
  • 1944 Steel Penny - At the beginning of 1944, some steel material was left in a coin press, and was subsequently used up before the switch was made back to copper. 1944 Steel Pennies, then, were the only steel pennies known to have been minted in a year where all other pennies were made of copper. Forty of these coins are known to exist, and in very fine condition or better, a 1944 steel penny is worth anywhere from $77,000 to $110,000.

Section VII.

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Moving Forward With Numismatics

Break out the piggy bank!
Break out the piggy bank!

Whether you stumbled upon a wheat penny after buying gas, after searching for the remote in between the couch cushions, or after you raided your piggy bank: Welcome! You have just taken your first steps into the rich and wonderful world of numismatics. Every time you touch a coin from days long gone, know that you also touch something of the people who have come before you. The tactile sense of that diminutive, unassuming, circular metal disc in your hand was also felt by:

The Wall Street banker, who fished it out of his pocket to pay a newsie, while on his way to the office on the morning of October 29, 1929;25

The eighteen year old boy, who bought a Coca-Cola while waiting for the bus that would take him, and many others, to the army recruiting depot, on December 12, 1941;26

The proud man, who walked through the door with a sign on it that read "No Blacks Allowed," then sat down at the counter, presented his money, and refused to leave until he'd been served, on February 1, 1960.27

What were their names? What were their hopes and dreams? Their fears? How did they live, and how did they die? Consider these questions and more, the next time you find yourself idly holding a coin. Perhaps, in a hundred years or so, someone will find themselves idly holding that same coin, wondering the same things about you!

Poll

Did you find this article while doing research on a "Wheat Cent" that you happened across by chance {i.e. after you purchased a candy bar}?

See results

*A note on rare coins: While your author strives to keep this article updated to the best of his ability, the spot price of coins can and will change depending on current trends in the coin market. As an additional resource, check out this excellent (free) database for Lincoln wheat penny values — as well as many other unique coins — located at CoinTrackers.

References

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Photo Credits

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  1. '1937 Wheat Penny (Obverse & Reverse).' Source: Mrmiscellanious, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2008 Apr 7 [cited 2014 Feb 9]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1937-Wheat-Penny-Front-Back.jpg
  2. 'The cultural value of a Lincoln wheat penny is a reward in and of itself!' Source: cjmartin, CC-BY-2.0, via Flickr. 2011 Jun 21 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjmartin/5857809641/
  3. 'Humphrey Bogart.' Source: Yousef Karsh, PD-Time, via Wikimedia Commons. Circa 1946 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Originally available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humphrey_Bogart_by_Karsh_(Library_and_Archives_Canada).jpg
  4. 'Ingrid Bergman,' as she appeared on a pin-up for an issue of Yank, The Army Weekly. Source: Author unknown, PD-Time, via Wikimedia Commons. 1945 Mar 16 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ingrid_bergman.jpg
  5. 'President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany.' Source: Author unknown, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 1941 Dec 11 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franklin_Roosevelt_signing_declaration_of_war_against_Germany.jpg
  6. 'Victor David Brenner, as shown in Harper's Weekly (pg. 24). Source: Author unknown, PD-Time, via Wikimedia Commons. 1909 Aug 21 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victor_David_Brenner.jpg
  7. 'Obverse and reverse of a '1909-S VDB' penny, from the San Francisco Mint. Brenner's initials can be seen in the bottom center of the reverse.' Source: Bobby131313, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2008 May 17 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1909-s-vdb-wheat-cent.jpg
  8. '1943 steel penny, also known as a 'Steelie' (obverse and reverse).' Source: Magnus Manske, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2010 Oct 23 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1943_steel_cent_obverse.JPG
  9. 'Discover Wheat Penny Values!' Derivative Photo by E.N.B. Original Photo: Mywood, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2007 Jul 13 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wheat_Penny.jpg
  10. 'The elusive 1944 steel penny (obverse). Less than a dozen of these are known to exist.' Photograph taken at the ANA convention in Rosemont, IL. Source: Wehwalt, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2011 Aug 19 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1944-D_steel_cent.jpg
  11. 'A 1943 copper penny (obverse and reverse). There are forty known to be in existence.' Source: 293.xx.xxx.xx, PD-Gov, via Wikimedia Commons. 2006 May 17 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1943_copper_cent.jpg
  12. 'Break out the piggy bank!' Source: Kat, CC-BY-2.0, via Flickr. 2009 Jan 6 [cited 2013 Jun 27]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swimparallel/3174754333/

Disclaimer from Wikipedia & E.N.B.

"... Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research.

"As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia's content—please check your facts against multiple sources..."
-- Wikipedia

That said, Wikipedia is a wonderful resource for acquiring basic knowledge about virtually any topic for free! Also, the Wiki-community is generally vigilant in their quest to provide accurate information, as well as in rooting out and correcting misinformation, whether from honest errors or deliberate scholarly sabotage. In any case, your author cites Wikipedia as a means to quickly provide additional information about discussed topics with which the reader may feel unfamiliar, in order to provide clarity and grant a means to gain general insight. If in reading a cited Wikipedia article about a subject of interest, a desire is sparked to pursue further research, all the better! For these reasons, "Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia," is highly recommended as a preliminary stop for inquisitive and discerning individuals with an appetite for knowledge.
-- E.N.B.

© 2013 Earl Noah Bernsby

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      Earl Noah Bernsby 22 months ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Hi Cielo-- thanks for reading! Check out the section above entitled "Lincoln Penny Key Dates." If your penny is not listed there, follow the link to the hobbyzine webpage (at the end of that section) that lists the collector prices for Lincoln pennies of various conditions.

    • Earl Noah Bernsby profile image
      Author

      Earl Noah Bernsby 22 months ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Thanks-- numismatics is a passion of mine, as well!

    • Cielo Marshall profile image

      Cielo Marshall 2 years ago from Honolulu Landing, Hawaii

      I have 1944 Penny and 1943 silver Dime , can I please have each price amount if I will sell it to coin collectors? thanks. My email is Babyrey.14344@yahoo.com.....Thanks

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      Nice hub. I enjoy reading coin hubs.

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