The History Of The Wheat Penny: A Look At This American Classic

When looking at valuable coins from bygone areas, the wheat penny is considered one of the most sought after. The wheat penny had a long history as a form of US currency, and was the predecessor to today’s penny. Today, we’ll take a look at the history of the wheat penny, as well as some of the most sought after wheat pennies today. 


What is a wheat penny? 

Wheat pennies were one-cent coins that were used in the United States from 1909 to 1958. On the front of the penny is the bust of Abraham Lincoln, which we still see on pennies in the US today. On the back of the penny are the words ‘E Pluribus Unim’ and ‘One Cent United States of America’. The text is framed by two stalks of wheat, hence the name of the coin. 


The History Of The Wheat Penny

The wheat penny was created to replace the Indian Head penny, which was used during the second half of the 19th century. It was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The president felt that US coins should show more artistic merit, so he commissioned a sculptor named Victor David Brenner to make it. 


Brenner was a close friend of Roosevelt’s and had made sculptures for him in the past. He was originally from Lithuania, but had emigrated to the United States when he was in his early twenties. He had also already featured a bust of Lincoln in his earlier works, and he replicated this image for the coin. Up until this point, US coinage had never featured an image of a real person. 


The wheat penny was first released on August 2nd, 1909. These coins were minted in both Philadelphia and San Francisco. Initially, the coins featured the designer’s initials, VDB, at the base of the coin. The American people were fascinated by the new penny, and mints quickly ran out of the initial supply they had created. People were lining up in front of banks to get them, and enterprising folk even sold them for more than their face value. However, they disliked the designer’s initials at the base of the penny, so the mints decided to remove them for later iterations of the coin. 


Over the next decade, the US Mint manufactured millions of wheat pennies. Most of the pennies were produced in Philadelphia, although some were produced in San Francisco and Denver as well. In 1918, the mint opted to restore Brenner’s initials to the coin. However, instead of putting them prominently under the wheat, they were placed under Lincoln’s shoulder. 


The government continued to produce the wheat penny over the next few decades. Production stayed concentrated in Philadelphia, although there are rare wheat pennies that were produced at other mints during this period. Wheat penny production increased dramatically in the 1940s, with the Philadelphia mint producing billions of pennies. 


In 1943, the mint opted to produce wheat pennies using steel instead of copper. There was a very practical purpose for this - copper was crucial to American military efforts in World War II. These coins are much lighter than their copper counterparts, and are easily distinguished by their light silver color. These steel pennies were only produced for a year, and by 1945 the mint had gone back to only using copper for these pennies. The treasury quietly took many of these steel cents out of circulation in the years to follow. 


The US continued to produce wheat pennies through the 1950s. In 1958, the US government opted to release a new design to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday. This new design featured an image of the Lincoln Memorial on the back instead of the wheat imagery. This new design was released in 1959, and the mint stopped producing wheat pennies. 


How much are wheat pennies worth? 

All wheat pennies are now worth more than one cent. However, the value of a wheat penny can vary quite a bit depending on a number of factors. Here are some of the factors that influence the overall value of a wheat penny. 


- Condition: The condition of the wheat penny is particularly important when determining its value. Coins wear down over time as they are circulated, making it more difficult to see the design on the face. The finish of the wheat penny can also erode over time, taking on a greenish tinge. A wheat penny that has been highly circulated might only be worth a few cents. However, a wheat penny that has been kept in good condition with little to no circulation could be worth at least $10, even if it’s not from a particularly noteworthy year. 


Coin collectors will use a grading scale to determine the official condition of a coin. On this scale, coins are sorted into three categories ranging from Poor to Mint State. Within the Mint State (MS) tier, there are numerical grades that indicate the quality of the coin. These range from 60 to 70. Coins with a rank of MS-60 have never been circulated but has small imperfections. A penny with a rank of MS-70 would be considered perfect and could be very valuable. 


- Age: The age and rarity of the coin can also determine its value. For example, there are still plenty of wheat pennies from the 1950s in circulation. Because they are more common, they aren’t worth much more than face value. However, older wheat pennies from the 1910s and 1920s are very valuable because they are much rarer. It’s particularly difficult to find pennies from this era in good condition. Two specific years that are quite valuable are 1914 and 1922. Wheat pennies from these years can be worth as much as $5,000. 


- Origin: The mint that the wheat penny comes from can also determine its value. Most wheat pennies were minted in Philadelphia. Since these are much more common, they aren’t as valuable as wheat pennies that were minted in San Francisco or in Denver. All coins are marked with a P, S, or D symbol to indicate where they were made. 


What are the most sought after wheat pennies? 

Some of the most sought after wheat pennies are steel wheat pennies from 1944. Steel pennies were mainly produced in 1943, but mints did produce some steel wheat pennies in 1944 as the result of a production error. There are only a few steel cents from 1944 in existence, and they could be worth over $100,000. Despite the Treasury’s attempt to take 1943 steel wheat pennies out of circulation, they are still somewhat common, and are typically worth between 10 and 50 cents. 


Copper pennies from 1943 are also extremely rare, with only a few known to exist. With the mint focusing on steel pennies that year, only a few copper pennies entered circulation. There are also extremely rare wheat pennies from this year that were only coated with copper due to the shortage. The most expensive Lincoln cent ever is a 1943 copper cent made in Denver, which was sold for $1.7 million in 2010. It is the only one of its kind, as the other 1943 copper pennies known to exist were minted in either Philadelphia or San Francisco. 


Another rare wheat penny that many collectors search for is the 1955 double die wheat penny. During this year, the Philadelphia Mint had a problem with one of the dies they used to imprint the designs on the pennies. Since the die was slightly off, it created a subtle doubling effect of the year and text on the front of the coin. Lincoln’s portrait is also much less detailed. Approximately 20,000 of these double die coins went into circulation, and now they can be worth over $1,000. 


These are just a few of the most valuable wheat pennies in the world. The older and rarer the wheat penny gets, the more valuable it will become. Since all wheat pennies are worth more than their original face value, it’s worth keeping an eye out for these classic coins!

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