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“What is a wheat penny worth?” is one of the most common questions we get asked. The answer is… it depends! The value of a wheat penny can vary between a few cents and several hundred dollars, depending on several factors. Let’s take a closer look at this deceptively simply coin!

What exactly is a wheat penny?

The “wheat penny” is a nickname that refers to the standard American one cent coin issued from 1909 to 1958. The Wheat Cent is important in numismatics and culture at large because it marked the beginning of the iconic bust of Abraham Lincoln adorning the obverse of our cent, or “penny,” as it more commonly referred to.

Amber waves of grain: how the wheat penny began

The 49 years that the wheat penny circulated were perhaps some of the most impactful and nostalgic years in recent American history, especially to the many folks who grew up during the time these coins were circulating.

AI rendering of 1910's small town America featuring a Model T car.
Artistic rendering of 1910’s small town America

In 1909, the first year the wheat penny was issued, America was still mostly a rural country, dotted with thriving small towns and developing cities with an economy still centered on agriculture.

It makes sense, then, that the reverse of the wheat penny would reflect this heritage. The reverse has two stalks of wheat representing America’s great agricultural bounty. The wheat stalks are offset east and west with the words “one cent” in the middle, and the design evokes the famous lyrics of “America the Beautiful” (“O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…”).

Interestingly, the wheat penny is actually recognized by collectors for its reverse design rather than the obverse, even though both sides were debuts at the time.

At the turn of the 1910’s, the automobile was still in its infancy, and long voyages would take place on mighty steam ships like the ill-fated Titanic. Life was a bit more simple back then by comparison, but things were changing quickly.

A nation’s progress leads to the penny’s new look

It wasn’t long into the wheat cent’s production when America quickly developed into an industrial nation of innovation and power. Novel technologies like electricity and indoor plumbing started becoming standard in homes. Architects represented the country’s progress in towering skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York City.

President Theodore Roosevelt believed our national coinage should be just as impressive.

To this end, Roosevelt approved a number of changes, including a notable one: that Abraham Lincoln should became the very first president to be featured on an American coin. And the coin to bear Lincoln’s likeness? The penny!

Sculptor Victor David Brenner created the original plaster cast of Lincoln that was then transferred to metal dies for coining.

The plaster cast of Abraham Lincoln's profile created by sculptor Victor David Brenner, which was used to make the Lincoln Penny.
original plaster cast of Lincoln created by sculptor Victor David Brenner

Commemorating presidents in this manner proved to be popular. Lincoln would eventually be joined on coins by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy. By 1964, all American coins depicted portraits of deceased presidents.

What came after the wheat penny?

In 1959, the image of the Lincoln Memorial started appearing on the reverse of the penny, replacing the stalks of wheat design. That’s why collectors know the modern penny as a “Lincoln Memorial penny.”

Wheat pennies became a popular choice for collectors

The history, the iconography, and the low cost of acquisition made the wheat penny one of the most popular coins to collect. Because of the popularity it is most commonly collected by acquisition of a representative example of one of each date and mintmark. It has been collected this way since the 1950s. While it is still possible, on occasion, to find a wheat penny in pocket change, for the most part these older “wheat back” Lincolns have disappeared from circulation.

However, if you inherited a collection recently, you probably have found quite a few of these coins, as many people from the generations including and preceding baby boomers saved them in mass quantity.

Determining the value of a wheat penny

There are three factors to consider when determining the value of any coin: rarity, popularity, and condition. For a coin to be valuable it will need to score high in at least two categories and more than likely all three.

The wheat penny series as a whole is popular, so that helps.

However, the popularity contest, so to speak, is all about the date and the mintmark combination and how rare that combination is. At the end of this article I provide a “cheat sheet” of the key dates (which means the most collectible dates) and approximately what an average example could be worth to a dealer like myself.

Condition plays an equally significant role in determining the value.

A date and mintmark combination could be considered common by mintage and survival rate, but extremely rare if the condition is high enough. One example of this would be the date 1957 with no mint mark*. The 1957 wheat cent in circulated condition is worth on average 3 cents, and dealers sell them for between 4 and 5 cents, typically in large grab buckets.

* Pro Note: Having no mint mark on a coin of that age means it was made in Philadelphia, because Philadelphia didn’t use mint marks until 1980.

However, if you happen to find a wheat cent in such immaculate condition that upon professional certification it grades MS67 with mint red (RD) specification It could be worth as much as $1,000.

When it comes to condition of wheat pennies, the grade is so important.

Another major factor of value is color.

Coins can grade brown, red-brown, and red. This has to do with how copper oxidizes over time. The designations of color appear on certified coins as BN, RB, and RD. The more original mint red color the coin has, the higher the overall grade is likely to be and the more the coin will be worth. A perfectly preserved, mint state wheat penny will be as red as a fire engine!

Be aware: color is often lost very quickly to open air oxidation. It doesn’t always get lost to circulation, but circulated wheat pennies turn brown very quickly. The collectors with the deepest pockets spend lots of money to acquire truly high-end specimens for their complete certified sets, while the average working class collector is happy to simply collect brown circulated examples in push-in coin albums, which even these at times can have considerable value for the right date and grade.

If you find the wheat penny series interesting or you are looking for a more in-depth pricing analysis I recommend getting a copy of the either the Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins, published annually), or the Red Book of Lincoln Cents (A Guide Book of Lincoln Cents) by Q David Bowers, which is chock full of information about the entire mintage and gives vastly more historical background.

Here’s Our Wheat Penny Value Cheat Sheet List

For those of you who just need a handy cheat sheet to check for the best dates, below is my basic list of what to look for, as well as the prices we pay for an average specimen. The following cheat sheet values are based on the grades we most commonly encounter.

If you do not see the date of your coin on this list, then it is considered a common date, and unless the grade is extremely high, it will be worth between 3 cents and 10 cents at any reputable dealership.

1909 (with V.D.B Initials above the reverse rim at 6 o clock)$4 – 7
1909-S (with V.D.B Initials above the reverse rim at 6 o clock)$400 – 600
1909-S (no V.D.B.)$40 – 600
1910-S$5 – 10
1911-S$14 – 22
1912-S$10 – 15
1913-S$10 – 15
1914-S$10 – 15
1914-D$80 – 150
1915-S$6 – 15
1922 No Mint Mark visible at all$400 – 500
1922 Weak D (mint mark just barely visible)$60 – 150
1922 Strong D (mint mark is clear)$7 – 15
1924-D$15 – 25
1926-S$5 – 10
1931-S$35 – 50
1933-D$2 – 4
1955 Double Die, All elements of obverse strongly doubled
(See photo below)
$400 – 750
1955 Double Die Cent with close-ups on the stamped words Trust and Liberty, and the stamped year 1955, all strongly doubled.

What coin would you like me to write about next?

Leave a comment below or contact me with questions!

image of a wheat penny’s reverse side: Credit, used under CC license

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