The penny is the United States’ one-cent coin. The person on the obverse (heads) of the penny is Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president. He’s been on the penny since 1909.
The current design on the reverse (tails) is a Union Shield. It has been on the penny since 2010. The 13 stripes on the shield represent the 13 original states. The bar across the top represents Congress and the federal government. The bar includes the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“out of many, one”). The shield design symbolizes the U.S. as a whole country, kept together by President Lincoln.
When the United States Mint was created in 1792, one of the first coins it made was the one-cent coin, but it looked very different from a modern cent. The image on the first cent was of a lady with flowing hair, who stood for liberty. The coin was larger and made of pure copper, while today’s penny is made of copper and zinc.
In 1857, Congress told the Mint to make the cent smaller and to mix the copper with nickel. People found the smaller cent easier to use. The new cents showed a flying eagle on the front and a wreath on the back.
In 1909, Abraham Lincoln became the first real person on a U.S. circulating coin. While the Lincoln portrait has remained the same since then, several different designs have been used on the reverse:
- Ears of wheat (1909 to 1958)
- Lincoln Memorial (1959 to 2008)
- Four designs in 2009 as part of the Lincoln Bicentennial One Cent Program
Learn about other circulating coins.