The Mint coins a new phase: After 50 years, Lincoln Memorial gone from the penny

You may have noticed a small change in your small change. More likely, you haven’t.

“Now when did they do that?” asked Victor Schubert, a lawyer from Racine, Wis., squinting at a freshly minted 2010 penny. “And why?”

Schubert and other tourists on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial one recent afternoon were surprised to see a brand-new look to that most familiar of coins.

Gone from the Lincoln penny is the reproduction of the Lincoln Memorial, complete with really tiny seated Lincoln, that has been “tails” since 1959. In its place is a “Union Shield,” a simple acorn of 13 stripes capped with the motto “E Pluribus Unum.” On the “heads” side, the iconic profile of the 16th president by Victor David Brenner remains unchanged.

The U.S. Mint has been stamping out the new design since February; presses in Philadelphia and Denver have produced more than 3.6 billion of them. But officials said the down economy has made banks slow to request new coins. It will be years, they said, before shield pennies become as common as the tens of billions of Lincoln Memorial pennies filling sofa cracks and dresser tops across the country.

Mint spokesman Michael White said there have been few comments from the public about the new design, probably because few have spotted it.

“It’s a phenomenon of notice – once you see one, they’re everywhere,” White said. “But you don’t tend to examine your change unless you’re a coin collector.”

Most visitors to the Lincoln Memorial – where a huge mock-up of the old penny adorns the entrance to an exhibit hall – said they were sorry to see the memorial end its half-century run as the most common edifice in American pockets.

“This building has a lot of meaning for me,” said Schubert, 73, who first came to Washington on a high school trip. Whenever he’s here, he still makes time to walk up the steps to see the giant Lincoln. “I stood right by that column on the corner and looked out over this beautiful expanse and decided I wanted to become a lawyer. I’ll miss seeing it on the penny.”

Then Schubert paused to consider the scale of the change, literally. “Not that I look at pennies very much anyway,” he said.

Janey Hockenhull, chaperoning a group of fifth-graders from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she doesn’t like to see perfectly good coins get the flip, as it were.

“If something doesn’t need changing, don’t change it,” she said. “What was wrong with the old penny?”

Nothing, Mint officials said, but that didn’t stop Congress from demanding a new one, as it has about every 50 years since the Lincoln penny was introduced in 1909 to mark the centennial of the great man’s birth. Just as that first design, with ears of wheat framing the reverse side, gave way to the Lincoln Memorial penny in 1959, lawmakers directed the Mint to update the coin again this year. (For Lincoln’s actual bicentennial year, 2009, the Mint released four commemorative pennies depicting different phases of his life.)

“It really hasn’t made much of a ripple this time except in coin circles,” said Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Colorado Springs. “I think it was a bigger deal when the wheat penny went away. Some people got very worked up about that one.”

Part of the reason the new penny has dropped without much reaction may be a general new-coin fatigue, Mudd said. After decades when almost nothing on U.S. coins changed except the year they were minted, the past 10 years have seen almost every coin get a makeover.

Starting in 1999, the state quarter project began, replacing the long-standing eagle reverse with images from each state and, eventually, the District. It proved to be the Mint’s most successful program, turning many thousands of people into collectors. (The Mint is now releasing quarters honoring national parks and other scenic sites.)

Thomas Jefferson’s nickel got a facelift in 2006, presenting a head-on view to cashiers everywhere with an image based on a 1800 portrait by Rembrandt Peale.

Coin buffs gobble up every tweak, of course, and Mint officials say it is important to revisit currency design every few decades for security and aesthetic purposes. But they also know that too much change makes people feel funny about their money.

“For me, there’s a little bit of ‘enough already,’ ” Doug Khorey, an English teacher from Pittsburgh, said when he saw the new penny. “It starts to seem like toy money.”

The new shield design wasn’t dictated by Congress, White said. The law merely called for an image that would be “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.”

Gary Marks, chairman of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, a congressionally appointed body, pushed for the Union Shield, which he said was quite popular during the Civil War, appearing on frescoes in the Capitol and carved into a lot of public marble around town.

“It was on beer mugs, furniture,” Marks said. “For Americans of the time, the Union Shield was broadly seen as a symbol of national unity.”

Mark’s commission selected the shield design from among several proposals, and the Treasury adopted it. You can find the minuscule initials of designer Lyndall Bass and engraver Joseph Menna flanking the shield.

But another advisory body, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, had other views. Its members preferred other proposed images, including a stylized flag from the period and a view of the Capitol dome under construction during the Civil War.

“The shield was not one of the three or four [the Fine Arts Commission] focused on, but the Mint didn’t take our advice on this one,” said commission secretary Thomas Luebke.

Luebke and Marks also disagree on whether to shed tears over the disappearance of the Lincoln Memorial from the penny. For Luebke, an architect, the Memorial on the penny and Jefferson’s Monticello on the nickel are worthy elements of the coins that jangle through the land.

“I personally feel that it’s a loss,” he said. “There is something pleasing about these edifices that represent contributions of these presidents.”

Marks, who has a day job as the city administrator of Ketchum, Idaho, prefers more abstract symbols.

“A building is a building,” he said. “It’s a cherished memorial, certainly, but on a coin, I think we’re better served reaching for those iconic, artistic images that communicate our national values. To me, the Union Shield does that.”

The Mint coins a new phase: After 50 years, Lincoln Memorial gone from the penny.

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