Original publish date: March 7, 2019
So, what did you do for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday? Go out to dinner? Go to church? Get together with friends and family? Wait, you knew February 12th was Honest Abe’s birthday didn’t you? Well, don’t feel bad, nobody else did either. But once upon a time, everyone celebrated Lincoln’s birthday.
The move to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday began after his 1865 assassination. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee agreed that Feb. 12, 1866 should be set aside for ceremonies in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, was asked to give a eulogy for Lincoln at the event. When the day arrived, the Capitol was closed to the public and guests filed into the House chamber for the commemoration, which began at noon. The president’s birthday was commemorated by both houses of Congress, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, officers of the army and navy, and many foreign representatives.
Inside the House chamber guests listened to historian George Bancroft (former Secretary of the Navy and the man who established the Naval Academy at Annapolis) talk about “the life, character, and services of Lincoln…forming one of the most imposing scenes ever witnessed in the land.” The address took nearly two hours. The push for a formal celebration quickly spread to state capitals, legislatures and city councils. Most northern states quickly warmed to the idea but bitterness over Reconstruction and the cult of the “Lost Cause” among southerners scuttled attempts to make Lincoln’s birthday a Federal holiday.
Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and to the first few generations after his assassination, that date on the calendar had meaning. Of the 48 states that made up the United States in 1940, exactly half celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday as a holiday. Most celebrations took place in schools, churches, veteran’s halls and political functions. Unlike other traditional American celebrations, Lincoln was not honored with parades but rather with ceremonial dinners and speeches. The states continued to recognize the holiday, which was in close proximity of Washington’s Birthday holiday less than two weeks later, for another 30 years until Congress stepped in and changed all that.
In 1971 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The law shifted several holidays (Veteran’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Lincoln’s Birthday and Columbus Day to name a few) from specific days to a Monday. The reason behind the change was seen as a way to create more three-day weekends and reduce employee absenteeism. The birthdays of George Washington and Lincoln were only 10 days apart, so they were blended into Presidents’ Day.
Eventually, individual states created their own Presidents’ Day holidays to be observed on the third Monday in February. This celebration has been enacted in some fashion by 38 states, though never federally, and each varies by state. Some mark the day as a specific remembrance of Washington and Lincoln while others view it as a day to recognize all U.S. presidents. Alabama celebrates Washington and Jefferson. A few states still recognize Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 as its own official holiday. Most notably, Kentucky, his birth state and Illinois,his adopted home state, both celebrate Lincoln’s birthday as an official state holiday, along with a few other states including New York, Connecticut, and Missouri. However, this number has declined in recent years, when California, Ohio and New Jersey ended the celebration of Lincoln’s birthday as paid holidays to cut budgetary costs. Unfortunately, more states now celebrate Black Friday as a holiday than celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. Indiana and Georgia are a couple states that recognize Lincoln’s Birthday on the day after Thanksgiving aka Black Friday.
In most states, Lincoln’s birthday is not celebrated separately, as a stand-alone holiday. Instead Lincoln’s Birthday is combined with a celebration of President George Washington’s birthday (also in February) and celebrated either as Washington’s Birthday or as Presidents’ Day on the third Monday in February, concurrent with the federal holiday. Good for George Washington. Sad for Abraham Lincoln. Once upon a time, Lincoln’s birthday was a milestone for Americans to pause and honor greatness.
The centennial of Lincoln’s birth was the largest commemoration of any one person in American history. On the morning of February 12, 1909, the forts around New York Harbor, the National Guard field batteries, and the battleships in port all fired at once to honor Abraham Lincoln. At noon the Gettysburg Address was read in the public schools across America. The culmination of the 100th anniversary was the minting of the first coin bearing the image of an American president, the Lincoln penny. Lately, it seems like the only talk we hear about the penny come from those who want to abolish it. But there may be more to that little copper coin than meets the eye. Well, copper depending on what year you’re talking about. If your Lincoln penny has a date before 1982, it is made of 95% copper. If it is dated 1983 or later, it is made of 97.5% zinc and plated with a thin copper coating.
Since that auspicious debut in 1909, probably no other object in human history has been reproduced more often: to date 1.65 trillion times and counting my friends. That is 1,650,000,000,000 in case you wonder what it looks like. The US Mint estimates 200,035,318,672 are currently in circulation. So what happened to the other 1.4 trillion pennies? Lost in couches? Under car seats? Buried in back yards? My father-in-law Keith Hudson once told me that if you have a stubborn tree stump in the backyard that you want gone just stick a copper penny in it. Well, I don’t know about that but it sure does get you thinking. Maybe that explains where all those pennies went.
Regardless, the U.S. Mint still produces more than 13 billion pennies annually. That’s approximately 30 million pennies per day; 1,040 pennies every second. More than two-thirds of all coins produced by the U.S. Mint are pennies and the U.S. Government estimates that $62 million in circulated pennies are lost every year (according to Bloomberg). In fact, the penny is the most widely used denomination in circulation and it remains profitable to make. Each penny costs .93 of a cent to make, but the Mint collects one cent for it. The profit goes to help fund the operation of the Mint and to help pay the public debt. The average penny lasts 25 years.
The penny was the very first coin minted in the United States. In March 1793, the mint distributed 11,178 copper cents. During its early penny-making years, the U.S. Mint was so short on copper that it accepted copper utensils, nails and scrap from the public to melt down for the coins. That 1909 Lincoln centennial penny was the first U.S. coin to feature a historic figure and the first to have the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST”. Lincoln faces to the right, while all other portraits on coins face to the left. To date, there have been 11 different designs featured on the penny.
Legend claims that we owe that Lincoln penny to Teddy Roosevelt. Privately, President Theodore Roosevelt told intimates that American coins were “pedestrian and uninspiring”. In July 1908, he sat several times for Victor David Brenner, a Lithuanian-born Jew who, since coming to the United States 19 years earlier, had become one of the nation’s premier medalists. Lincoln, like most immigrants, was Brenner’s personal hero. He was the first American he learned about from his tenement house on New York’s Lower East Side. During those White House sittings, Brenner showed Roosevelt a bas-relief sculpture of Lincoln based on a Mathew Brady photograph. Roosevelt, a great admirer of Lincoln himself, allegedly decreed that Brenner’s Lincoln must go on a new penny to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909.
Putting Lincoln on the most widely circulated coin made perfect sense, after all, it was Lincoln who’d said “Common-looking people are the best in the world; that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.” Brenner received $1,000 for the commission. Production of the Lincoln penny began at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia on July 10, 1909. The sculptor asked that he receive the first 100 of the new Lincoln pennies, but his request was deinied, so great was the anticipation. Fearing regional jealousies, the Mint ordered the coin be released across the country simultaneously. That May, the Boston Globe reported, “The new Lincoln cents, it seems, will be distributed the first week in August…It is so hard to wait!”
On Monday, Aug. 2, 1909 the New York Sun reported on the first of the new Lincoln pennies issued by the Federal Sub-treasury (today’s Federal Reserve Bank) to long lines of budding numismatists waiting anxiously in the financial district. “The big man down in Wall Street yesterday was the man who had a few of the new Lincoln cents. He could have had a fairly good time on 10 of them; he could start a celebration on a quarter’s worth, and for 50 of them there was no reason why he couldn’t purchase a regular jubilee.” The lines continued all week long and by Friday, even the rain couldn’t dampen the money rush in Lower Manhattan.
Some people near the front of the lines sold their spots for a dollar. Other more ambitious entrepreneurs hired women, who in a still chivalrous era, were ushered to the head of the line. “Within 15 minutes there were enough girls at the door to make it look like a bargain counter sale on a busy Monday,” The Sun reported. Many in what The Tribune called “the penny-mad crowd” were poor raged looking little children, some carrying a single battered Indian Head penny to trade in. The resale rate hovered around three new pennies for a nickel, but shot up slightly when supplies ran low. It was pretty much the same all around the country.
The Washington Star compared the “penny-chasers” to the crowds watching the Wright brothers test their new “aeroplanes.” The Boston Globe said, “you could get the new Lincoln coins for a cent apiece by spending, say, a dollar’s worth of time.” The Illinois State Register in Lincoln’s Springfield hometown reported that the Lincoln Bank ordered 5,000, but received only 50. Even in the old Confederacy, The Constitution newspaper reported that “demand was so high outside one Atlanta bank the crowd would have made a Chicago bread line look small.”
Carl Sandburg wrote, “If it were possible to talk with that great, good man, he would probably say that he is perfectly willing that his face is to be placed on the cheapest and most common coin in the country. Follow the travels of the penny and you find it stops at many cottages and few mansions. … The common, homely face of ‘Honest Abe’ will look good on the penny, the coin of the common folk from whom he came and to whom he belongs.”