It was 1905. American coins had been sporting the same designs for over 50 years, and President Roosevelt decided that it was time for a change. He wanted our nation to have coins comparable to those of the ancient Greeks.
Roosevelt initiated this effort by contacting sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coinage, resulting in the world-famous Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, as well as the 1907 Indian $10. Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, before he could design more coins, so the president had to find someone else to design a coin for the upcoming centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
Roosevelt chose Victor David Brenner, an American sculptor, engraver, and numismatist. Brenner was a founder of the New York Numismatic Club, and had garnered a reputation producing medals, which were a popular collector’s item at the time.
In 1907, Brenner produced a medal of Lincoln, and a year later, discussed with Roosevelt the idea of using the design for a coin. The Indian Head cent had been in use since 1859 and was ripe for a change. Brenner worked on the Lincoln head for over a year, and on August 2, 1909, the Lincoln cent was circulated for the first time.
A cloud of controversy soon descended upon the coin. Unnoticed in the pre-release publicity was the fact of Brenner’s initials, VDB, on the reverse of the coin. In an earlier model, Brenner’s last name appeared in full on the coin, but this was seen as too prominent and changed to his initials.
To the public and the media, however, even this was too much. Some felt that the letters were simply too prominent, and others felt that since Brenner had been paid for his work, he didn’t need recognition. Others saw the initials as unfair free advertising for Brenner. In fact, credit to the artist is a tradition that goes back centuries in numismatics, including on the ancient Greek coinage that first inspired the American coin renaissance. J.B.L., for the engraver James B. Longacre, appeared on most of America’s gold coins for decades and through 1908.
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