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The 1939 Lincoln Wheat Penny: A Modestly Valued Small Coin From A Big Year

The 1939 Lincoln Wheat Penny: A Modestly Valued Small Coin From A Big Year

One of the enjoyable side-lights of coin collecting, separate from coins as an investment or an item of numismatic art, is contemplating where a given coin might have circulated. If a coin could talk, where was it spent, and what might it have seen? What stories could a penny tell us?

The year 1939 was a busy one in the United States, and a Lincoln penny newly minted in that year might have had many interesting events. The year was really the last flourishing of peacetime culture before the outbreak of war in Europe threatened the placid stability of the world.

The Chicago World’s Fair, for instance, offered attendees relief from the hardships of the Great Depression with the vision of a prosperous, constantly advancing future of technological marvels. The price of general admission was seventy-five cents for adults, twenty-five cents for children, with a special children’s day every week, with the price of ten cents. A penny could go a long way to covering the cost.

If the movies were more to a customer’s taste, a penny (and four others like it) could get a ticket to Gone with the WindThe Wizard of Oz, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington which were only three of a number of classic films released during the year. Musically inclined patrons could buy recordings of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” or of Glenn Miller and his orchestra playing “In the Mood.” Those close to Washington, D.C., could use their pennies to go to the Lincoln Memorial, where soprano Marian Anderson would give a concert, after being denied the use of Constitution Hall for racial reasons. 

All in all, a momentous year.

In 1939, however, the U.S. Mint struck so many pennies that they are fairly common. Consequently, the 1939 penny value is quite modest, and collectors should not expect to sell any except the finest specimens for a high price.

What is a 1939 Lincoln wheat penny worth?

Because all three U.S. mints produced one cent coins in 1939, in large quantities, Lincoln wheat pennies from that year are not especially valuable. They are readily available, and even the higher grades can be purchased at prices that are well within the budget of even the most cost-conscious collector. Very nice uncirculated or “mint-state” examples can and do fetch significant premiums at auction, though in some cases the bid may reflect the needs of particular collectors to fill out a set.

How Many Lincoln Wheat Pennies Were Made in 1939?

By 1939, the United States was beginning to recover from the Great Depression. The improved economy led to a greater demand for coins, and the small mint runs of pennies found in the early 1930’s were a thing of the past. All three U.S. mints struck Lincoln one-cent coins in 1939. The totals minted are:


In addition, the Philadelphia Mint struck 13,520 proof Lincoln wheat cents.

By 1939, the design of the Lincoln one cent had been in use for thirty years, having been created as part of a general re-imagination of American coinage called for by Theodore Roosevelt. The original coin, featuring a portrait of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, had been introduced to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The design, by Victor Brenner, displayed two stylized wheat stalks on the reverse.

The Lincoln penny was immediately popular with the American public, and the portrait of Lincoln, first appearing in 1909, remains in use to this day, making the Lincoln cent the longest running coin design in American history, and one of the longest running coin designs in the world.

1939 Wheat Penny Value Chart

1939 Penny Value Chart
Type (Business Strike)Grade
Good G4 to About Uncirculated AU50Uncirculated MS63Uncirculated MS65Uncirculated MS67
1939 1C BN$0.20 to $0.23$2.40$4.05
1939 1C RB$2.65$5.40
1939 1C RD$4.05$10.80$143.00
1939-D 1C BN$0.30 to $0.75$2.65$4.05
1939-D 1C RB$2.65$5.40
1939-D 1C RD$5.40$10.80$143.00
1939-S 1C BN$0.25 to $0.75$2.65$5.40
1939-S 1C RB$4.05$8.10
1939-S 1C RD$5.40$13.50$150.00
Type (Proof Strike)PR65PR66PR67
1939 1C RD$182.00$292.00$1,250.00
1939 1C CAM$1,020.00$2,500.00$4,750.00

Auction prices can sometimes vary widely from the published wholesale or retail prices, depending upon collector interest at any particular auction, and upon the appearance of the particular item offered for sale. At the same time, auction prices over time can sometimes show general trends, if there are enough sales to furnish a sample.

A few recent auctions of 1939 Lincoln pennies show how auction prices can vary from published charts quite clearly.

1939-D red MS-67 Lincoln penny sold at Heritage Auctions, in May 2023, for $90.00, which is somewhat less than the value shown on the chart above.

1939 red MS-67 penny, also auctioned by Heritage, in April, 2023, for $192. In the same month, a 1939 red MS-67+ specimen sold for $780, also at Heritage Auctions.

1939-S red MS-67 penny sold in April, 2023, for $139.00.

What does the term “grade” refer to with respect to the 1939 Lincoln wheat penny?

As with any other collectible coin, the 1939 penny value depends in large measure upon the condition of the coin, especially given the high number minted from all three U.S. mints. The technical term used to describe the condition of any coin is its “grade.” Coin dealers and collectors assign both a number, from 1 to 70, and a descriptive term to a coin when talking about grading coins. In every case, a higher grading number is “better” and a more valuable coin than a lower number of the same type. Thus, a coin grade might have an abbreviation like VG-10, or AU-50. The first example would be described as “very good,” while the second would be described as “almost uncirculated,” meaning that the coin has been used in commerce, but has very little wear. At the top of the grading scale are coins described as “mint state,” and assigned numerical values of between 60 and 70. These coins have never been used in commerce, and have, at most, only very slight wear or damage from having been shipped with other coins in bags from the mint.

For circulated coins, an appraiser or dealer will determine the grade based upon the amount of wear. A circulated coin loses detail, until the coin is nearly worn flat. Low grade coins, like Poor or About Good (Pr/AG) have little detail left. The portrait of Lincoln will still be present, but some of the small letters or numbers on the coin may be hard to read or worn off altogether. Good (G) coins show letters more clearly, and the larger details of the portrait will be visible. Fine details, like the wheat grains, or the lines of the hair, have eroded. At higher grades, like Almost Uncirculated, minimal wear shows on the very highest details of the coin, like the cheek on the bust of Lincoln.

Ignorant collectors, and some unscrupulous dealers, will sometimes clean a worn coin, trying to give it a shiny new and uncirculated appearance. Because of wear patterns in circulated coins, these attempts can be quite obvious with even casual inspection.

What are “proof coins” and are there any 1939 Lincoln penny proofs?

Image credit: PCGS

Proof coins are produced using specially polished blanks and stamped with dies that have been carefully prepared to remove any imperfections. Historically, these coins were created to see what a finished coin might look like, or to use as presentation pieces for officials associated with the Mint, the Treasury, or the government. Proof coins proved popular with collectors in more modern times, and the Mint began making them available to the public.

Between 1916 and 1936, the U.S. Mint discontinued striking proof coins, claiming a lack of demand from collectors made the effort not worthwhile. After 1936, individual proof coins were struck, initially in somewhat small quantities. Thus, in 1939, the Philadelphia Mint struck a little over 13,000 proof Lincoln wheat pennies. Auction prices for the 1939 proof penny can vary considerably.  In January 2017, a proof 1939 Lincoln penny fetched $2,585 at auction. Just four months later, in April 2017, a similar coin realized only $881.25. Clearly, a great deal depends upon the bidders at any given auction.

Technical Specifications of the 1939 Lincoln Penny

The 1939 Lincoln penny is a bronze coin, being composed of 95% copper, and 5% tin and zinc. The copper gave new Lincoln coins a bright, shiny red appearance, while the tin and zinc provided the hardness necessary for use in circulation. Wheat pennies weigh 3.11 grams. This is lighter than modern U.S. pennies, which weigh only 2.5 grams. The penny has a diameter of 19mm. American pennies have a plain rather than a reeded edge.

Are There Any Known Defects of the 1939 Lincoln Wheat Penny?

Although mints take great care in quality control, mistakes do happen, and defective coins sometimes make it through the minting and inspection process. Because these are comparatively rare, a defective coin can sometimes be significantly more valuable than a perfectly intact specimen with a high grade.

Some known mis-strikes and defects for the 1939 Lincoln wheat penny include:

Brockage: A brockage occurs when a coin becomes stuck in the minting die, and a second coin is struck on top of it. The result is a mirror image of the coin stuck in the die appearing on the second coin. The defect can occur on either the obverse (front) or reverse (back) of the coin. In 2010, an obverse brockage of a 1939 Lincoln wheat penny sold at Heritage Auctions for $189.75.

Image credit: Heritage Auctions

Double-Strike: A double-struck coin occurs when a coin is run through a die for a second time. Frequently, the second striking will be off center. When this happens, there will be two (or rarely, even more) images on one side of the coin. In 2006, Heritage Auctions sold a Lincoln wheat penny, arguably from 1939 (though possibly from 1930), for $1,265.

Image credit: Heritage Auctions

Broadstrike: A broadstruck coin was not properly held by the retaining collar when struck during the minting process. As a result, the coin is larger than the standard size, and part of the image may be missing. Heritage Auctions sold a broadstrike 1939 Lincoln penny for $46.00 in 2004.

Clipped Planchets: Coin blanks, or planchets are made by using a steel rod to punch pieces from a strip of metal. Occasionally, an overlap happens, and one of the planchets is missing part of its material on an edge. These defects can result in a variety of clips, including straight and curved edges. On June 12, 2023, Heritage Auctions sold a pair of 1939 Lincoln pennies struck on clipped planchets. The first, a broadstruck penny with a straight edge, sold for $89.00. The second, struck on a planchet with a curved clip, fetched $62.00.

Doubled dies: A doubled die defect arises when a coin is struck using a defectively made die. A properly made coin die is struck very precisely several times during manufacturing, to leave a sharp impression. If the die is misaligned, these strikes will not line up, leaving an extra image in the die. Any coin struck using that die will show this double image. Some of these misalignments are minute and invisible without magnification. Others are quite obvious, and appear as a double image on the coin. This defect can appear on either the obverse or reverse of the coin. In 2023, Heritage Auctions sold a double die obverse (DDO) 1939 Lincoln penny for $420.00.


The 1939 Lincoln wheat penny was manufactured in such a large quantity that it isn’t especially rare. Good circulated examples can be found at very modest prices, while uncirculated examples can sometimes fetch decent prices at auction. For collectors interested in errors, a number of different coin defects are known, and are available for purchase.