Some people go head over heels for Bust halves while others sing praises for Buffalo nickels.
But, I? What coin is it that I love most? It’s the penny – more specifically, the Lincoln cent.
Why did I become a penny collector? What is it about the little copper coin bearing the bust of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, that has lured me to collect these coins for most of my life?
Well, there was one prevailing factor – pennies comprised about 80% of the coins in my piggy bank back then, when I was only a kid.
I had already begun looking at the dates of the coins in my piggy bank when I was only 6 or 7 years old, but didn’t really think much about them – though I always liked trying to find the oldest Lincoln cent in any given piggybank haul – which I would then immediately spend the entirety on whatever LEGO construction kit or Brio wooden railway set caught my fancy that week.
A couple years later, around the age of 9 or 10, my interest in coins evolved to the point that I would start creating date runs with whatever Lincoln cents I had present. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was assembling bona fide date sets – I just thought it was neat to see how many consecutive years’ worth of pennies I could have before I hit a brick wall. I recall making a penny date set run from 1973 to 1991 – which to my 10-year-old self seemed like a pretty cool accomplishment.
What Made Me A Full-Blown Penny Collector
What really lit the penny collector fire in me?
Well, it was a “discovery” I made one night when my mom gave me one dollar of allowance money completely in coins. Sifting through the little handful of coins Mom gave me, I found a 1941 wheat back Lincoln cent – quite possibly the oldest coin to have ever been found in pocket change (my 11-year-old self hypothesized). I was ecstatic and was just about ready to call up a local museum to offer it for display. I thought I had found a treasure worthy of news coverage.
Wondering what my 1941 Lincoln penny was worth, I looked up coin dealers in the phone book (this was 1992, after all – no Internet yet for kids to use) and quickly learned that my 51-year-old coin was worth a whopping 5 to 10 cents.
Taking My Hobby To The Next Step
But, the seeming monetary worthlessness of my little treasure didn’t dismay me at all. In fact, it only led me to ask Mom and Dad for a coin value guide that I found at a local bookstore a few days later.
I wanted to learn more about which Lincoln pennies were really rare and valuable, and which ones were less so. More importantly, I started checking all the change in my hands, as well as those in my mom’s purse and dad’s large oatmeal carton full of coins.
In short order, I found a few more Lincoln wheat coins, the oldest being a 1937 among those. However, my search for old Lincoln pennies wasn’t aimless. I had quickly memorized what dates I need to keep an extra close eye out for, including the 1909-S, 1909-S VDB, 1914-D, 1922 plain, 1931-S, and 1955 doubled die.
Within 3 months, I established a customer relationship with a coin dealer who just happened to have a shop about a mile from my home, and Mom would take me in there about once a week and let me look through his case of “half-off” coins. This little bin allowed me to fill several holes in the blue Whitman coin folders I started organizing my coin collection in. Sure, some of those coins were a little damaged – some cleaned, heavily nicked, whatever – but what was most important was the fact that I was seeking out certain dates of coins and arranging them in my coin albums, an action which resembles the roots of nearly all modern-era coin collectors.
Beyond The Penny Collector Folders
I spent a little less time sorting through pennies and a lot more time sticking my nose in books during my college years, but I soon went back to my love, and that was collecting coins and, specifically, Lincoln cents.
I bought a Dansco coin album – one of the highest-quality coin books on the market – and proclaimed that I would one day fill it – 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent and all. And, with a little more disposable income in my early working years than I had when I was still playing with my Gameboy and watching the Disney Afternoon on TV, acquiring a few rare Lincoln cents no longer seemed as impossible as it once did when I could still count my age with both hands and half a foot.
But, why did I come back to Lincoln cents instead of embracing something a little more exotic, like, say Seated Liberty half dimes?
When all is said and done, Lincoln cents still draw me in because behind their commonality in circulation, which is something most Americans take for granted, is an amazing world of key and semi-key dates, varieties, and oddities that a great deal of people sometimes overlook.
What’s more, these little one-cent coins are about as readily available as bottled Evian in a swanky country club, meaning there are plenty of opportunities in my pocket change every day to make an exciting find without having to spend more than a penny.
The thrill of the hunt enthralls me, and with billions of pennies floating around in American circulation channels, there are plenty of possible one-cent coin errors, varieties, and oddities just waiting to be discovered.
Here’s a video I made showing some of the most valuable old pennies:
My love for coins began when I was 11 years old. I primarily collect and study U.S. coins produced during the 20th century. I'm a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) and have won multiple awards from the NLG for my work as a coin journalist. I'm also the editor at CDN Publishing (a trusted source for the price of U.S. rare coins), editor at the Florida United Numismatists Club (FUN Topics magazine), and author of Images of America: The United States Mint in Philadelphia (a book that explores the colorful history of the Philadelphia Mint). I've contributed hundreds of articles for various coin publications including COINage, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, Coin Dealer Newsletter, Coin Values, and CoinWeek. I've also authored nearly 1,000 articles here at The Fun Times Guide to Coins — and I welcome your coin questions in the comments below!