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What are Wheat Pennies?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jmc88 — On Oct 24, 2012
I love collecting wheat pennies! My grandparents had a few that they gave to me when I was growing up, and ever since then I've just gradually collected more and more.

Regardless of their value, I just find them to be an interesting part of history.

By JimmyT — On Oct 23, 2012

@titans62 - I agree, pennies are usually not worth very much whatsoever.

I have an indian head penny from 1899 and even as old as the penny is and the fact that it is in near mint condition, it is worth a grand total almost two dollars.

As an avid coin collector, I can say that the reason why the market for pennies is not very good is because of the simple facts that the pennies are only worth one cent as currency, the copper is not as valuable as other coins, and pennies were produced a lot more than other coins, such as nickels, dimes, and quarters.

By titans62 — On Oct 22, 2012
@bagley79 - Wheat pennies aren't really worth a whole lot, and are probably worth more just for the copper than the actually value of the coin.

A lot of people believe that only wheat pennies were made of copper, but this could not be further from the truth.

Prior to 1982 all pennies were made of 95 percent copper and they were, in effect, more valuable as a scrap than as currency.

That being said, there were a lot of people that were attempting to melt down pennies for scrap and extra cash, once inflation got high enough that a penny's composition was worth more than as the one cent of currency.

By bagley79 — On Sep 05, 2012

I find it interesting that many pennies were made of copper and are different than the other coins we have.

What is the value of wheat pennies if they weren't made in 1943? Are these valuable enough that it would be worth keeping your eye out for them?

By golf07 — On Sep 04, 2012

My mom used to collect wheat pennies and I can still see her sitting at the table going through her coin collection and her prized wheat pennies.

I don't know what ever happened to her collection and wonder if she had any of the rare wheat pennies. She always thought they were worth something, but you sure don't hear much about them today.

Every once in awhile I will notice a wheat penny, but I don't usually set it aside. It ends up getting lost in the shuffle with all the other coins.

By truman12 — On Jun 01, 2012
Why did the mint stop making wheat pennies? I have always preferred that design to the penny that we use now.
By ZsaZsa56 — On Jun 01, 2012

I used to have a collection of wheat pennies when I was a kid. I had probably 30 or 40. I didn't look for them all that closely but if I noticed one in my change I would set it aside.

Back then I was a fiend for collections. I collected coins, stamps, rocks, bugs, army men, you name it. If I could get my hands on 5 of something I would try to get 15 more. I grew out of that instinct eventually, but as a kid it consumed me

By anon138405 — On Dec 31, 2010

isn't the motto of the united states "In god we trust"?

By anon61952 — On Jan 23, 2010

The "front"? The "back"? Anyone who knows anything about coins uses the correct terminology: obverse and reverse.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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