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The 1934 Lincoln Wheat Penny: A Modestly Priced Coin With A Big History

The 1934 Lincoln Wheat Penny: A Modestly Priced Coin With A Big History

Although humble and even often over-looked in daily commerce, the Lincoln cent retains enduring popularity as a star among American coin collectors. This is, perhaps, because of the coin’s versatility. The Lincoln cent has enough rare dates, rare mint marks and rare varieties to challenge the most veteran collectors. However, at the same time, the coin also has many plentiful years, and varieties, so that even a novice collector on a tight budget can assemble a nice, reasonably complete set through steady and careful purchases. Because the Lincoln coin remains in circulation, it can even be used to introduce adolescents to the joy of collecting. How many of us had our start in numismatics by eagerly examining rolls of Lincoln cents in hope of finding something special to put in a blue cardboard “penny” holder?

The 1934 wheat penny is not especially scarce, and so not especially valuable. Collectors should be able to find many nice circulated specimens at very reasonable prices. Even mint condition coins remain affordable and available to collectors of modest means. The very highest grades of mint condition coins command higher prices in the market, however.

Introduction of the Lincoln Wheat Penny

By 1934 the Lincoln wheat cent design had already been in use for a quarter-century. The original design, introduced in 1909 marked a major departure, as it was the first regularly circulating coin in the United States to depict any real person, whether living or dead. The way for the change had been paved by the appearance of both Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain on special commemorative coins in 1892 and 1893. Other historical figures followed on commemorative coins, but the introduction of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was thought to introduce a major departure, which worried both Mint officials and political leaders.

Despite initial concerns over whether the American public would accept an actual person depicted on coins, the popularity of Lincoln as a historical figure ensured the immediate and enduring popularity of the coin, which has become the longest running coin design in American history.

The origin of the Lincoln penny design began with the general redesign of American coinage implemented by Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. The redesign work began with gold coins. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, then perhaps America’s preeminent sculptor, was commissioned to oversee the designs. He completed work on the ten dollar “eagle” and twenty dollar “double-eagle,” before his death in August 1907. The remaining gold coins, the five dollar “half-eagle,” and the “quarter-eagle,” worth two dollars and fifty cents, were redesigned by one of Saint-Gaudens’ students, Bela Lyon Pratt.

The commission for the one cent piece, the first “small” coin to be redesigned, went to a sculptor not in Saint-Gaudens’ artistic circle, Victor David Brenner (1871-1924). Although Brenner lacked the prominence of many American artists, he was a talented and highly trained sculptor and engraver in his own right. After immigrating to the United States in 1890, and working as an engraver and die-maker, he studied in Paris, where he exhibited work at the Exhibition of 1900, and was highly praised by the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin.

Brenner’s artistic work, besides the Lincoln cent, includes a number of sculptures and bas-relief panels. Theodore Roosevelt posed for him, and this may have influenced Brenner’s subsequent selection to design the penny. Other subjects depicted by Brenner include Prince Henry of Prussia; Charles Eliot Norton, classics professor at Harvard University, and John Paul Jones, the great naval hero of the American Revolution. Brenner also created a bronze bas-relief portrait of Lincoln in 1907, and this bust is remarkably similar to the portrait which ultimately emerged in the design of the penny.

For the reverse, various designs were considered. Previous small penny coins in the United States had used wreaths of oak or laurel leaves surrounding the phrase “one cent.” Brenner originally proposed using a tree branch or sprig, but this was rejected by the Mint. Instead, Brenner substituted two stylized stalks of wheat for the wreath, together with the necessary “one cent.” This design was accepted by the Mint, and the first pieces were released in 1909, the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.

The design of the Lincoln penny continued, mostly unchanged, until 1959, when a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial was substituted for the sheaves of wheat, for the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of the coin, and the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. It is worth noting as an aside that the Lincoln Memorial had not been built when the original design for the Lincoln penny appeared.

Historical Significance: The Great Depression and the 1934 Wheat Penny

Although the 1934 Lincoln cent is not especially rare, and so not exceptionally valuable, the coin does have some historical interest, as it marks a turning point in America’s struggle against the Great Depression.

The Depression caused a general decline in commerce and trade. The implication of that decline can be seen through the production figures for all three U.S. mints between 1929 and 1934. Declining farm prices in both the West and Midwest led to dramatic falls in production for all coin types at both the San Francisco and Denver mints. There was simply little demand for coins, and mediocre circulation for the coins the mints did produce.

As the economic malaise spread to the rest of the nation, Eastern demand for coins from the Philadelphia mint declined as well. Lincoln cent pieces often remained in storage at all three mints until 1934 and 1935.

Production figures for wheat cents between 1929 and 1934 tell the tale. Production of other small coins, like nickels and dimes, was similarly impaired.

Production of Lincoln One Cent Coins at U.S. Mints, 1929-1934

Mint Year PhiladelphiaDenverSan FranciscoTotal
From Yeoman, Guide Book of United States Coins (2023 edition)

What is the 1934 Wheat Penny Value?

While the 1931, 1932, and 1933 wheat pennies are all rare enough to be scarce, even in the lower grades, the high number of coins struck in 1934 means that the 1934 wheat pennies, minted at Philadelphia, are not especially valuable, although the 1934-D commands a slight premium for its comparative scarcity.

In assigning a value to copper or bronze coins, collectors look for the amount of original copper or red tone remaining in the piece. Over time, copper coins naturally tarnish to a brown state. This leads to three different designations for wheat pennies, red, (RD), red-brown (RB), or brown (BN). A “red” penny retains much of its brightness, and copper color, perhaps as much as 85 or 90% of the surface remains “shiny” A “red-brown” penny has begun to oxidize and lose its shiny tone, however, at least 15 or 20% of the original color remains. Any other penny is graded “brown”. While the phrase “not worth a red cent,” is sometimes used to imply something especially useless, the idea is fundamentally wrong. It is the red cents or pennies that are the most valuable. The corollary of this notion is that the circulated grades are largely brown.

1934 Wheat Penny Value Chart

Good 4Fine 12Extra Fine 40Uncirculated MS-60Uncirculated MS-63
1934 1C, BN$0.15$0.25$1.00$6.00$10.00
1934 1C, RB$7.00$12.50
1934 1C, RD$16.00
1934-D 1C, BN$0.20$0.50$3.00$16.00$21.00
1934-D 1C, RB$18.00$22.50
1934-D 1C, RD$30.00

Grading the 1934 Wheat Penny

Image credit: PCGS

The grade of the coin is determined by the amount of wear showing. As a coin circulates, details are eroded, until, eventually, coin becomes almost smooth.  At the lowest end, Poor or About Good (PrAg), very few details remain. The portrait bust outline is still visible, but some of the smaller letters, or numbers in the date may be worn off or extremely difficult to read. The Good (G) grade shows letters more clearly, and some of the coarser details of the portrait bust are visible, but finer details, like the hair line, and the lines on the wheat shock are still worn off. As the coin proceeds up towards the Almost Uncirculated (AU) grade, more and more details become visible. In the AU grade, only slight wear shows on the highest points of the image, such as the cheek of the portrait of Lincoln. 

In Mint State (MS) the coin should exhibit almost no wear, and very few nicks or scratches from sitting in a bag with other coins. In this case, as noted, the amount of original luster remaining, together with the lack of marks determines the exact grade of such coins. In evaluating a Mint State wheat penny, the prospective purchaser should look especially at spots where marks or nicks can easily be overlooked, such as the hair on Lincoln’s portrait, or the wheat sheaves, since both of these points contain numerous engraved marks which should be present.

Sometimes, unscrupulous dealers (or ill-advised collectors) will try to polish a coin, perhaps using brass polish for pennies. This does not enhance the value of a coin, and in the case of worn coins, can easily be detected by simple inspection.

One coin grade which collectors of 1934 wheat pennies, or, for that matter, of any other U.S. coin minted in that year will not find are proof grades. Proof coins are struck to have a special mirror-like finish, and handled with some care in their manufacturing process. The United States Mint discontinued the striking of proof coins in 1916, and did not resume their issuance until 1936.

Auction Prices for 1934 Wheat Pennies

A few extremely well-preserved examples of 1934 Lincoln pennies have fetched significant prices at auction. In 2002, a 1934 Lincoln penny which was part of a type set of coins, pennies through half-dollars dated 1934 and 1935, commanded $805 at Heritage Auctions, although it is not clear if this bid was for the entire set, or just the penny itself.

In July 2003, Heritage Auctions sold an MS-68 red 1934 Lincoln Wheat cent for $12,650.

Misstrikes and Defective 1934 Wheat Pennies

One popular specialty for coin collectors is looking for defective coins struck by the mint. Sometimes a coin might be double struck, not struck at all, or struck on the wrong blank. Occasionally, a die used for stamping coins is defective, and leads to a double image on the coin. Such coins are not double struck, rather the die is simply bad.

In 1934, the Philadelphia Mint changed the style of the “3” in the date, to make it look more like the “9.” Some of the pennies struck in 1934 contain shadows of a second partial date. Experts contend these examples are results of a doubled die, owing to the way the Mint produced dies in the 1930’s.

Coins from the Denver Mint, in 1934, were often struck from worn or overused dies. The situation had, by 1934, become bad enough that the initials of the sculptor, VDB, had worn off of several of the dies altogether and were no longer visible. Collectors may find it difficult to find examples with sufficient detail in the image, not due to wear on the coin, but due to defective dies.

Technical Specifications of the 1934 Wheat Penny

The Lincoln penny was made of 95% copper, and 5% tin and zinc, making it, technically, a bronze coin. The Lincoln penny weighed, at the time, 3.11 grams; modern pennies have a weight of 2.5 grams. It has a diameter of 19mm. The Lincoln penny has a plain, rather than a reeded edge.


The 1934 and 1934-D Wheat Pennies represent interesting artifacts from a difficult period of American History. As a starting point for a collection, to introduce a hobbyist, or to teach a bit of history, they make a choice artifact, even if their financial value is not spectacular.