The Lincoln cent and anti-Semitism
For more than a century collectors have been asking: Was Victor David Brenner, the man who designed the most popular coin in the history of the world, denied his due in 1909 because he was Jewish?
The 1909 Lincoln cent, part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s impressive redesign of the nation’s coins in the early 1900s, is the first regular-issue United States coin to show a real person. The coin was wildly popular. In New York City, police were called to keep order Aug. 2, 1909, as crowds pressed in on the Sub-treasury building on Wall St. where the coins were being distributed. Newsboys who braved long lines hawked their treasures at three for a nickel, nearly doubling their money.
While engravers have been signing their numismatic work since antiquity, Brenner’s initials – V.D.B. at the bottom of the reverse – drew fire at the start as too large and too prominent and, perhaps, too Jewish.
Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh had signed off on the design months before the coin's release, but when pressed about the initials said he had not noticed the offending V.D.B. Three days after the coin was released, he ordered production halted and the initials remove, but not before 28 million cents had been struck at Philadelphia and 484,000 at San Francisco.
Over the years, darker motives have been ascribed to the removal of the initials. Brenner was a private medalist and a Jewish immigrant. Mint employees, particularly Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, chafed at seeing outsiders work on U.S. coins and fought using them at every turn. Some numismatists believe, too, that anti-Semitism might have played a part in the decision to remove Brenner’s initials.
Immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, were none too popular in the United States in the early 1900s. Poor, non-Christian and following strange customs, Jewish immigrants made easy targets for that era’s anti-immigrant crowd. The Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigrants to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States in 1890, pretty much shut the door on Jewish immigration for decades.
Brenner, born Viktoras Baranauskas in his native Lithuania, was unmistakably Jewish.
Acting on rumors the VDB cents would be recalled and destroyed, people hoarded the coins. The San Francisco coin is a key to the series, retailing for $610 in Good condition. The Philadelphia coin costs much less – just $9 in Good – but comes with the same story.
Brenner’s profile of Lincoln has appeared on hundreds of billions of cents during the past 107 years. It is believed to be the most reproduced piece of art in the history of the world.
In 1918, the year after Barber died, Brenner’s initials were returned to the coin – in letters so small you need a magnifying glass to see them – on the beveled edge at the base of Lincoln's portrait. They remain there today.
Next: The cent that was so good they made it twice