It is President Teddy Roosevelt we have to thank for giving us the first Lincoln penny. Until the Lincoln penny debuted in 1909, no likeness of an actual person had appeared on a “regular-denomination circulating United States coin.” Too monarchial, deemed our first head of state, George Washington. Emperors, kings, and other authority figures had long stamped coins with their images to declare their power. Young America was done with that kind of governing. So the Mint Act of 1792 dictated that American coins would instead be “an impression emblematic of liberty.”
As a result, the coin designs of liberty – depicted by goddesses, mainly- grew “dowdy and uninspired.” President Roosevelt complained to his secretary of the treasury that, “Our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” So Roosevelt directed him to stamp the image of Lincoln on the one-cent piece to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday.
It was done. When the Lincoln penny was released into circulation, it was a hit with the American people. Long lines formed at banks and Treasury buildings in New York, Washington, Boston, and other cities to snap up the new coins. In Philadelphia, some of the pennies were sold for 25 cents. It had been 44 years since Lincoln was assassinated. He was an icon. People were excited that they recognized the face on the coin.
Of course, as Lincoln himself remarked, you can’t please all the people all the time. Some people grumbled about the new coin, Confederate veterans, of course, plus the New York Times, calling it “another ill-considered freak of Mr. Roosevelt’s will.”
Nowadays, the complaints about the penny are different. There are some people who want to get rid of the penny altogether. Due to the rising price of metal, the cost of making the “copper-coated zinc corpus” (1.4 cents) now exceeds its face value.