WASHINGTON — You may have noticed a small change in your small change. More likely, you haven't.
"Now, when did they do that?" asked Victor Schubert, a lawyer from Racine, Wis., squinting at a freshly minted 2010 penny. "And why?"
Schubert and other tourists on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial one recent afternoon were surprised to see a brand-new look to that most familiar of coins.
Gone from the new Lincoln penny is the reproduction of the Lincoln Memorial, complete with a really tiny seated Lincoln, that has been "tails" since 1959. In its place is a "Union Shield," a simple acorn of 13 stripes capped with the motto "E Pluribus Unum." On the "heads" side, the iconic profile of the 16th president by Victor David Brenner remains unchanged.
The U.S. Mint has been stamping out the new design since February; presses in Philadelphia and Denver have already produced more than 3.6 billion of them. But officials said the down economy has made banks slow to request new coins. It will be years, they said, before shield pennies become as common as the tens of billions of Lincoln Memorial pennies now filling sofa cracks and dresser tops around the country.
Mint spokesman Michael White said they have gotten few comments from the public about the new design, probably because few have spotted it.
"It's a phenomenon of notice — once you see one, they're everywhere," White said. "But you don't tend to examine your change unless you're a coin collector."
Most visitors to the Lincoln Memorial — where a huge mock-up of the old penny adorns the entrance to an exhibit hall — said they were sorry to see the memorial end its half-century run as the most common edifice in American pockets.
Janey Hockenhull, chaperoning a group of fifth-graders from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she doesn't like to see perfectly good coins get the flip, as it were.
"If something doesn't need changing, don't change it," said Hockenhull. "What was wrong with the old penny?"
Nothing, Mint officials said, but that didn't stop Congress from demanding a new one, as it has about every 50 years since the Lincoln penny was introduced in 1909 to mark the centennial of the great man's birth. Just as that first design, with wheat framing the reverse side, gave way to the Memorial penny in 1959, lawmakers directed the Mint to update the coin again this year. (For Lincoln's actual bicentennial year, 2009, the Mint released four commemorative pennies depicting different phases of his life.)
"It really hasn't made much of a ripple this time except in coin circles," said Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association's Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I think it was a bigger deal when the wheat penny went away. Some people got very worked up about that one."
Gary Marks, chairman of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, a congressionally appointed body, pushed for the Union Shield, which he said was quite popular during the Civil War, appearing on frescoes in the Capitol and carved into a lot of public marble around town.
Marks' commission selected the shield design from among several proposals, and the Treasury adopted it. You can find the minuscule initials of designer Lyndall Bass and engraver Joseph Menna flanking the shield.