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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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are wheat pennies and why are they called that?
Wheat pennies, officially known as Lincoln Wheat Ear cents, are a series of U.S. one-cent coins produced from 1909 to 1958. They are called "wheat pennies" because the reverse (back) side of the coin features two stalks of wheat, symbolizing prosperity and abundance. This design was a departure from the previous Indian Head cent and marked the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, with his portrait on the obverse (front).
How much are wheat pennies worth?
The value of wheat pennies varies widely, depending on their condition, rarity, and the year they were minted. Common wheat pennies in circulated condition might only be worth a few cents over their face value, while key dates and mintmarks, such as the 1909-S VDB or the 1914-D, can be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), a 1909-S VDB in mint condition can be worth over $5,000.
What makes some wheat pennies more valuable than others?
Several factors contribute to the value of wheat pennies. Rarity is a significant factor; coins with low mintage numbers, like the 1909-S VDB, are highly sought after. Condition is also crucial; coins in uncirculated or mint condition fetch higher prices. Additionally, certain mint errors, such as double dies or off-center strikes, can increase a penny's value. Collectors often pay a premium for these unique and rare characteristics.
How can I tell if my wheat penny is valuable?
To determine if your wheat penny is valuable, start by examining the date and mintmark, located below the date on the obverse side. Look for key dates known for their rarity. Next, assess the coin's condition; coins with little to no wear are more valuable. For an accurate valuation, consider consulting a reputable coin dealer or submitting your coin to a professional grading service like PCGS or the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC).
Where can I find wheat pennies today?
Wheat pennies can still be found in circulation, though they are becoming increasingly rare. Coin collectors and enthusiasts often discover them in old collections, estate sales, or by purchasing rolls of pennies from banks and searching through them. Coin shops, online auctions, and coin shows are also popular places to find wheat pennies for those looking to add to their collections or find specific dates and mintmarks.