The story of Victor David Brenner’s initials being removed from the reverse of the Lincoln cent, where they had been conspicuously located when the new design debuted in 1909 is well-known to most collectors of U.S. coins. As the key date in the series, the 1909-S V.D.B. is well-known even among non-numismatists. This blog’s author once received a happy birthday wish from a teacher, likening him to this key date coin.
What is less well known, even to numismatists, is that Brenner went without any credit for his designs on the cent itself for almost a decade after the initial removal of his initials. In 1918, the same year that a commemorative half dollar bearing a bust of Lincoln by another well known engraver, George T. Morgan, was issued, Brenner’s initials were restored, appearing at the truncation of Lincoln’s bust on the obverse. David Lange in his Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents – a superbly useful volume that is highly recommended reading – connects the restoration of Brenner’s initials to the 1917 death of Chief Engraver Charles Barber. Proposals for a more modest tribute to Brenner on the cent – a simple B – never went anywhere, likely because that same letter was used to credit Barber.
No announcement of the addition was made and most probably didn’t notice Brenner’s initials in their new location; sometimes the incused letters were barely visible. Farran Zerbe, probably a more astute observer of coinage than most in the 1910s, did not notice them until 1922, announcing the “discovery” in The Numismatist. Lange explains in The Complete Guide: “Being such a shallow feature and one located in a recurring wear point, Brenner’s initials were often visible only on coins struck from the earliest states of the die, and many cents dated 1918 and later are lacking the initials altogether. This problem only worsened with the deterioration of the master hub, and in later years even the earliest states of the working dies had diminished initials.”
The initials are visible on most Uncirculated Lincoln cents from 1918 forward and that first date is relatively affordable in most Mint State grades with any amount of red coloration. With more than 288 million reported struck, collectors interested in this inaugural issue (of sorts) should not have too much trouble tracking down an attractive example. Examples appear in Stack’s Bowers Galleries sales regularly; multiple Mint State 1918 Lincoln cents were presented in our August 2023 Collectors Choice Online Auction. Visit our website to view upcoming sales.