The Designer of the Wheat Penny: Victor David Brenner

Victor David Brenner was a medalist, sculptor, and engraver who is well known as the designer of the United States Lincoln Cent. He was born as Viktoras Barnauskas in June 12, 1871 in Lithuania to Jewish parents. In 1890 he emigrated to the United States and changed his name to Victor David Brenner to ease the process of obtaining American citizenship. When he arrived in America, he worked the gem and seal engraving and sculpting trade that his father taught him and took night classes to master English.  Before his career really took off, he also studied in Paris with the noted French medalist, Oscar Roty, where he showed his work and received awards at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Back in America, Brenner’s career reached its peak with his Lincoln coin design which was chosen by the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908 Roosevelt had posed for a Panama Canal service medal to be created by Brenner. While Roosevelt posed, Brenner suggested the idea of honoring Abraham Lincoln with a coin. Roosevelt had already been impressed by a centennial plaque depicting Lincoln that Brenner was working on, so the president gave his approval for the designing of the Lincoln coin.

The new coin was commissioned by the United States Mint. It was the new copper Lincoln one cent coin, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s profile was on the front and the border of circular wheat stalks was on the back. It is now known as the “wheat penny”.

The design of the Lincoln cent, when Brenner forwarded it to the Mint Director, initially bore his whole name. It was inspired by the signatures on the coins of other countries, such as the gold coins which Brenner’s mentor, Oscar Roty, designed for France. However, the Director substituted the initials, VDB, for the name.

The initials didn’t last long either, though. After production began, controversy surrounded the initials’ prominent placement on the reverse bottom between the wheat stalks. Some thought that the initials were too prominent, others were confused about the meaning behind the letters. In response to the criticism, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury at the time, Franklin MacVeagh stopped production on the Lincoln coins with initials and ordered new Lincoln cents without the initials. In 1918, the initials were returned, but this time they were smaller and located on the obverse side of the coin, next to Lincoln’s shoulder.

Approximately 28 million wheat pennies with the first set of initials were made by the Philadelphia Mint in 1909, but only 484,000 were made by the San Fransisco Mint. Those are known as 1909-S VDB wheat pennies, denoting the small “s” mark in pennies for San Fransisco minted coins. Because these pennies were so rare, they are one of the most popular for collectors. The production on wheat pennies ended in 1959, after a 50 year run. The wheat design was replaced with the Lincoln Memorial, which was chosen as a tribute to the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Friday, August 24th, 2012 Blog

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