The Union Shield cent, 2010–2020 and beyond
On April 28, 2009, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee met at United States Mint headquarters on Ninth Street in Washington, D.C., to review coinage designs including more than a dozen candidates for a new Lincoln cent. The coin, which in 2009 celebrated both its 100th anniversary and the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, was slated for a fresh look. From 2010 forward, as legislated by the 2009 Bicentennial One-Cent Program, the cent would feature “an image emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” This would follow the classic Wheat Ears motif used from 1909 to 1958, the architectural Lincoln Memorial design of 1959 to 2008, and four different bicentennial designs minted only in 2009.
The CCAC was well equipped to review the candidate designs. The Committee, established by Congress in 2003, is a public body that advises the secretary of the Treasury on themes and design proposals for circulating, commemorative, and bullion coinage; Congressional Gold Medals; and national and other medals. In attendance at its April 2009 meeting were Chairman Mitch Sanders and members John K. Alexander, Doreen Bolger, Michael Brown (via telephone), Roger W. Burdette, Arthur Houghton, Gary Marks, Richard Meier, and Donald Scarinci.
Kaarina Budow, design manager of the United States Mint, presented the portfolio of 17 designs. She explained the authorizing legislation, Public Law 109-145, and noted that the cent’s obverse would continue to feature Victor David Brenner’s profile portrait of Lincoln.
During an initial round of discussion, several committee members expressed disappointment regarding the proposed designs, considering them to be antiquated, cluttered, or insufficiently symbolic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the Union. Following this discussion, the committee narrowed the field to six designs: 1, 2, 13, 15, 16, and 17. After a second round of discussion, each committee member rated these designs by assigning points to them—either zero, one, two, or three points. With nine members present and voting, the maximum possible point total for any design was 27.
Design 13, showing a Union shield, received broad support from the committee, with nearly all members assigning it two or three points. In total it received 19 points. The committee minutes would later reflect that “members generally appreciated the clear composition of the shield” and judged it to be “a highly appropriate symbol.”
The committee’s recommendation letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, May 5, 2009, expanded on its thinking: “Committee members considered the shield to be a classic symbol from the Civil War era, and appropriately emblematic of Lincoln’s preservation of the Union. Design LP-13 was preferred over other shield-based designs due to its focus on a single design element, which members felt would promote clarity on a small coin.”
Regarding other motifs within the portfolio: “Designs featuring the United States Capitol were generally considered to have only a tenuous relationship to the coin’s theme, and attracted little support,” wrote Chairman Sanders. “Of the Capitol designs, LP-02 was preferred due to its visual simplicity. However, this design received considerably less support than the committee’s first choice, LP-13, and was also ranked behind the committee’s second choice, LP-17, which features a naturalistic eagle.”
Numismatic historian Q. David Bowers, later writing in A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents, would note the Union Shield design’s similarity to various privately issued Civil War tokens of the early 1860s—a fitting comparison.
The Debut of the Union Shield
Secretary Geithner agreed with the CCAC’s recommendation, and his decision confirmed the Union Shield motif. The Mint revealed the new design in November 2009, at the launch ceremony held at the United States Capitol for the year’s fourth and final Bicentennial cent.
Several months later, Springfield, Illinois, was the scene of the Union Shield cent’s ceremonial debut. Some of the coins had been shipped to Puerto Rico for circulation in January 2010, but the design’s official launch was held on February 11. More than 1,000 coin collectors gathered in cold weather at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Some arrived early and waited in line hours before the launch program started, for a chance to buy rolls of the new cents. Mint Director Edmund Moy was on hand. After the ceremony, in less than three hours bank employees distributed 1,000,000 of the cents in 50-coin rolls.
Because of the nation’s demand for pocket change, the Union Shield design is one of the most heavily mass-produced images of American material culture. For 2010 alone, more than four billion Union Shield cents were coined at the U.S. Mint’s Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco facilities. In total, over the design’s first eleven years, some 80 billion Union Shield cents have flowed into the river of coins entering commerce.
Several special formats and varieties have emerged within the series. In 2017, all Union Shield cents struck at the Philadelphia Mint were given a bold P mintmark in honor of the 225th anniversary of U.S. coinage. This was the first-ever (and, so far, only) instance of Philadelphia cents bearing a mintmark. And in 2019 the West Point Mint—the fabled “Fort Knox of Silver”—was employed to strike Union Shield cents with a W mintmark, in several special formats, for collector sets.
The coin has proven popular. Dave Bowers, describing the Union Shield design in the Guide Book of Lincoln Cents, observed, “Most numismatists came to like it as an improvement on the Lincoln Memorial style.”
Meet the Designer: Lyndall Bass
Lyndall Bass, the New Mexico artist who designed the Union Shield motif, joined the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) in February 2007 as an associate designer. The AIP was established in 2003. The Mint had used non-staff artists before then, but it created the AIP to develop and train a pool of talented outside artists qualified and ready to work with its full-time in-house sculptor-engravers. When a new coin or medal design is called for, AIP artists can be invited to submit proposals for consideration alongside those of Mint staff. Once a design is chosen, its final modeling—the translation from flat drawing to sculpture—is done by a Mint artist.
The AIP was set up with student designers (enrolled in undergraduate or graduate-level visual-arts programs); associate designers (professional artists new to the program); and master designers (proven as valuable AIP artists for at least two years).
By 2007, when Bass joined the program, AIP artists had submitted successful designs for high-profile coin series such as the Westward Journey nickels, State quarters, Presidential dollars, First Spouse gold coins, American Platinum Eagles, and various commemorative coins and medals.
Bass is an American Realist artist and teacher who creates primarily still lifes, floral tableaux, and symbolist figure paintings. On her art and inspirations, Bass states, “I was born in 1952 and have been stuck in the Renaissance ever since. Truth is, there is not much I’m really attracted to in ‘Modern Art.’” She says that “only Surrealism has caught my attention beyond Realism and my early love of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrew Wyeth, and Mary Cassatt.” Bass lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She studied at Indiana University, earning there a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art and a Master’s in education; at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; at the Philadelphia College of Art; and at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.
Sculpting by Joseph Menna
The Mint artist who sculpted Lyndall Bass’s Union Shield design was Joseph Menna, who joined the Mint’s staff in 2005 following 18 years of classical training and professional experience. His skills are in traditional and digital sculpture and drawing. Menna is recognized as having helped bring the U.S. Mint into the digital design and production era. His 2013 Mount Rushmore National Memorial quarter dollar design won an international award—Krause Publications’ coveted “Coin of the Year”—for circulating legal tender.
In a Mint interview in December 2014, Menna said, “I was lucky to be the first digital artist at the Mint and so have had the opportunity to introduce a lot of new techniques and technology to how we make coins. It has been an honor and a privilege, and I only see us continuing to grow in that direction as we move forward in our mission.”
On February 4, 2019, Mint Director David J. Ryder officially named Menna to the post of chief engraver.
John M. Mercanti, who preceded Menna as chief engraver and who retired in 2010, remembers how the artist was hired during the Mint’s transition to digital technology. In his book American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program, Mercanti wrote that he was half-jokingly given a mandate in the early 2000s: “Those machines [Janvier reduction lathes and other older technology] will go to the Smithsonian, or you will.” He went on to describe the later hiring of Joe Menna: “Joe was just what the doctor ordered. . . . He became a teacher and a mentor to the Mint’s staff in everything related to digital sculpting. I nicknamed him the ‘Yoda’ of the new technology.”
Menna now regularly attends the CCAC’s meetings, either telephonically or in person, to answer the committee’s technical questions on coin and medal design candidates, and to offer his insight as an artist and creative director.
The Future of the Union Shield Cent
Since its debut in 1909, the obverse of the Lincoln cent has featured a profile portrait of our nation’s martyred sixteenth president. On the reverse, its first design was the now-famous Wheat Ears motif, which ran for 50 years. This was replaced in 1959 by a view of the Lincoln Memorial, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the Washington Monument. This design, too, was used for 50 years. It was followed by four different designs released in the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth, 2009. These illustrated the story of Lincoln’s life with scenes from his childhood, formative years, professional life, and presidency.
The legislation that created the Union Shield cent gave no date for its replacement. American coin designs traditionally run for at least 25 years, unless intervening legislation brings an earlier change. Given the longevity of its predecessors, it’s likely the Union Shield cent design will grace coins of the realm for 50 years. In the meantime, the “semiquincentennial” or quarter-millennial of the United States, 2026, will probably bring a special one-year change to the design.
And there’s always the chance, however remote, that the one-cent denomination itself will be officially retired, except perhaps for small mintages for annual collector sets. Critics of government expenditure note that today it costs the Mint more than $0.01 to produce each circulating one-cent coin. In an effort to survive such criticism, the cent might undergo a change in composition, from its current copper-coated zinc to a less expensive option.
The United States Mint is a world-class innovator in the art and science of coinage. It will undoubtedly continue to surprise and delight collectors with variations in the Union Shield cent in the coming years—new collectible styles such as Reverse Proofs and Enhanced Uncirculated finishes, perhaps new mintmarks, or combined packaging with other special coins.
The Union Shield cent has already made a significant and lasting mark in the American numismatic scene. Collectors look forward to many more years of this historic and finely wrought coin.
Dennis Tucker is the publisher of Whitman Publishing; numismatic specialist in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee; and author of American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date. He is a Life Member of the American Numismatic Association and a past governor of the Token and Medal Society.