Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) assassination. He was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre during a performance of Our American Cousin the evening of April 14 and died the following morning.
Lincoln’s sudden death at a time when the nation was still reeling from the trauma of a bloody war that was only just ending had a lasting impact on the country. Indeed, Lincoln might be the most memorialized figure in American culture. The most common way that we encounter him these days is undoubtedly numismatically, namely in the form of the penny.
During his time in office, Teddy Roosevelt undertook a more or less comprehensive redesign American coinage. As the centenary of Lincoln’s birth approached in 1909, a large number of medals and tokens were being manufactured as souvenirs, and Roosevelt began to consider a way to honor one of his Republican heroes. This would be a departure from precedent as the first federally-issued coin to feature an actual person (as opposed to an abstract representation of ‘Liberty,’ or an ‘Indian Head,’ etc.). It seems that it was only by chance that the talented Litvak-American sculptor Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) was chosen for the job.
Brenner was commissioned to make a medal to be awarded for service on the ongoing Panama Canal project. In this context the President sat for the artist in late 1908, and it was at this time that he likely encountered a plaque that Brenner had sculpted of Lincoln for the Gorham Manufacturing Company. Roosevelt clearly admired his work, and although the precise details remain unclear, Brenner was engaged to produce a new design featuring Lincoln for the cent. It was a project he worked on through the winter of 1908-1909 and into the spring.
Both the plaque and the cent are presumed to be based upon a photograph of Lincoln in right profile taken by Anthony Berger of Matthew Brady’s Washington studio in February 1864 (this explains why, contra other American coinage, the bust of the penny faces right). In 1989, the American Numismatic Society received a large plaster portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Victor David Brenner. It was donated by David R. Lit, the nephew of the sculptor’s wife, Ann Reed Brenner. It is undoubtedly one of the plaster models that Brenner made in late 1908 or early 1909 as he was working on the design for what would become the Lincoln cent.
The plaster portrait measures 610 mm or 24 inches in diameter. It was the typical process at the time to produce a large model so that the artist was able to get the desired detail before a machine called a Janvier reducing lathe was used to copy the design onto a coin-sized hub. A comparison of this plaster with the finished cent shows that it was probably not the model used for production, though it remains a possibility as Brenner voiced complaints about the loss of detail when the Mint reduced his large designs. After sorting through some final design and production issues, over 20 million pennies were minted that summer and the new cent was released to the public on August 2, 1909 to wide acclaim.
Lincoln of course maintains his position on the cent to this day, and if you look closely you can make out Victor David Brenner’s initials just below Lincoln’s right shoulder. For more information about Lincoln’s legacy in the form of coins, tokens, and medals, see, Robert P. King’s Lincoln in Numismatics (orig. 1924, reprint 1966).