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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The United States Mint is changing the design of the penny. For the first time in 50 years, in observation of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, there's now going to be four new images on the back of the coin. They depict four different stages of Abe Lincoln's life.

The famous profile of the president will remain on the front. Now as it turns out, the penny has been at the cutting edge of coin design since Lincoln first appeared on it a hundred years ago. Robert Wilson Hoge is curator of North American Coins and Currency at the American Numismatic Society. He joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT WILSON HOGE (Curator, North American Coins and Currency, American Numismatic Society): My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: And how did Lincoln wind up on the penny and why wasn't he there all along?

Mr. HOGE: The United States coinage had been focused on representation symbolic of liberty of the country ever since the time when the mint began. And George Washington chose to avoid having his image placed on the coinage. It was an effort to do that, but he didn't want to be appearing in the role of a king.

SIMON: So people had to be persuaded to put a recognizable depiction of an actual person on the coin.

Mr. HOGE: Yes, the Lincoln cent - and by the way, we always call them the penny, but you know, the United States Mint actually has never even made any pennies. That's the cent all along.

SIMON: I didn't know that, OK.

Mr. HOGE: We called them pennies because that's an 18th-century anachronism. At that time, Lincoln was still looming large in the minds of many people who had lived through the Civil War, and in fact, he was often referred to as the martyred president.

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. HOGE: He was a hero of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was personally responsible for initiating a major redesign of United States coinage. Now, of course, in 1909 there were still many people in the South who would not have been especially pleased to see their wartime adversary depicted on the coinage. But there was a major national movement, and President Roosevelt, who was, of course, a prominent historian himself, wanted to see this happen.

It was designed to become a commemorative celebration of the centennial of Lincoln's birth. Now, we had had several issues of commemorative coins prior to that date which were not issued into regular circulation. But the ordinary one-cent coin, made with an Indian head design, as it's called, since 1859, it was replaced by the new Lincoln cent.

There was a controversy, though, at the very beginning. The designer, who was one of the foremost sculptor engravers in the country at that time, Victor David Brenner, had his initials appearing on the reverse of the coin fairly prominently. They were a little bit more noticeable than designers' initials had been up to that time.

SIMON: Boy, what a calling card!

Mr. HOGE: There was an outcry and his initials were removed, but they were replaced in much smaller form ever since 1918.

SIMON: Do you always look - take out your pocket change and look at it?

Mr. HOGE: You know, I have to confess that I do not always.

SIMON: Oh, gosh, knows what you've passed up.

Mr. HOGE: Terrible, I know. That's right.

SIMON: Mr. Hoge, thanks so much.

Mr. HOGE: Thank you.

SIMON: Robert Wilson Hoge of the American Numismatic Society. This is NPR News.

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