Wheat pennies are American 1 cent coins produced between 1909 and 1958. The “wheat” is a reference to the stylized sheaves of wheat that decorate the back of this series of coinage. These coins may also be referred to as wheatbacks, wheaties, or Lincoln wheat pennies. Prior to their introduction, the United States Mint produced the Indian head penny, marked with the head of a Native American brave on the front and a wreath or laurel or oak, depending on the year, on the back. In 1959, the wheat design was replaced with an engraving of the Lincoln Memorial.
The design of the penny was created by Victor David Brenner, a sculptor from New York. It features the head of President Abraham Lincoln looking to the right on the front, with “In God We Trust” over Lincoln's head, the date of minting on the right, and “Liberty” on the left. On the back, two stalks of wheat cross at the bottom, wrapping up the sides of the coin to frame the words “ONE CENT,” with “e pluribus unum,” the motto of the United States, running across the top of the coin. Smaller lettering reading “United States of America” can be found just below the “ONE CENT” designation.
Several series of wheat pennies were remarkable, making them valuable to collectors. The most valuable are the copper alloy pennies produced in 1943. Since pennies are, as a general rule, made from copper alloy, some people are surprised to learn this. In fact, the 1943 coins were made from zinc-coated steel, because copper was a valuable wartime commodity. The estimated 10 copper alloy coins produced by accident, therefore, are extremely valuable.
Coins from 1909 with a stamp reading “VDB,” for the designer, under the stalks of wheat are also valuable, as are 1974 pennies made from aluminum. These coins were produced as a test by the Mint, and never circulated, but a few can be found around on occasion. In 1955, a die error produced a series of double-stamped coins that are also sought after by collectors.
Incidentally, the US Mint does not refer to a 1 cent coin as a “penny.” The proper term is, in fact, “cent,” although the Mint has largely given up on trying to convince people to refer to the coin in this way, wheat or not.