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Can a penny be saved? March 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about dollars and sense. As you all know, one of the best-known sayings of my mentor, the great Ben Franklin, is “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Mind you, back in Dr. Franklin’s day, the humble penny had a lot more marketing oomph than it does now. In a time when people’s yearly earnings might come to less than fifty dollars, a penny was real money. Pennies had physical oomph, too–they were big, shiny copper coins the size and thickness of a half-dollar. A pocket or purse full of pennies would have made a grand old sound.

Pennies haven’t always been memorials to Abraham Lincoln, either. Pre-Lincoln, they proudly displayed portraits of Lady Liberty. Some of the earlier attempts at portraiture on the good lady’s behalf are hysterical–one early penny shows a woman with bulging eyes and hair standing on end, almost as though she could foresee the fate of the penny today. Later versions displayed an Alice-in-Wonderland version, a damsel with decolletage worthy of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, a staid, proper matron, and finally, a housewife of classical Rome. Then the penny took wing.

In 1856, the U.S. Mint did something completely different: They shrunk the penny down to its present size, changed its composition from pure copper to a copper-nickel alloy which turned it a leaden grey, and put a flying eagle on its face rather than a version of Lady Liberty. Unfortunately, the eagle never took flight. By 1859, the famous Indian head penny had been introduced, and it reigned supreme until 1909, when Abraham Lincoln took over. Honest Abe’s is the only penny most of us have ever known, though some might remember the “wheat ears” design that was used on the back of the penny until 1959, when the Lincoln Memorial took its place.

Today, unless you’re a coin collector, tax collector, or marketer, the penny gets no respect. Collecting pennies is a lot of fun, since you can still find the big old pennies, often for less than a piggy bank’s worth of modern pennies, and sometimes with gorgeous rainbow colors over the copper (numismatists, aka serious coin collectors, call this toning). And who doesn’t love the wonderful Indian head pennies, even when they learn that the so-called “Indian” was really designer James Longacre’s daughter in a headdress?

But a penny today won’t buy you a piece of penny candy (25 cents a piece as of this writing). The last use of this venerable coin is to make up the difference in sales tax, which seems never to be an even number, or to enrich advertisers who have well-documented evidence that people who wouldn’t dream of buying an item for $20 will snap it up at “only $19.99!” People drop pennies in parking lots rather than carry them, and nobody picks them up “for luck” these days. In 1982, the penny stopped even pretending to be a copper alloy and became copper-plated zinc. But even this cost-saving measure backfired: It costs more than a penny for the copper that covers it.

So today’s penny is an endangered species. There have been many attempts to have production stopped. It’s my view that unless the U.S. Mint decides to glamorize the penny by changing its design, as they’ve so successfully done in recent years with the state quarters, nickel, and most recently the presidential dollar series, the subject of Ben Franklin’s maxim will fade from public awareness, as may ultimately be the fate of all “hard currency” in the age of plastic.  So far, the only people who have spoken up for the penny are the nation’s coin collectors. So today, I’m asking you to weigh in: Should the penny be saved? And if so, why?   

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1. Lou - March 4, 2008

Entertaining post, OFB. Great detail about the early Lady Liberty with her hair standing up.
I don’t know about picking up a penny for luck, but how about picking up a penny to show off? Surely there’s a future for that in today’s word.
The one person I know who routinely dives after scattered change on sidewalks will admit, without a lot of persuasion, that he has unusually acute vision. And as he’s standing there admiring his latest find, he’ll sometimes exclaim “Pattern recognition!” Another great virtue, I’m sure.

“Pattern recognition,” indeed. Thanks, Lou! You can still sometimes find old “wheat-ears” pennies in everyday change, unlike, say, silver dimes and quarters. It’s fun to look, and even if you’re not a collector, you can always keep them for the copper–the value of it and all the useful metals just keeps going up!

2. Coin Update - March 5, 2008

“It’s my view that unless the U.S. Mint decides to glamorize the penny by changing its design…”

Funny you should mention this. The penny is getting a redesign for 2009 to celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Cent.

Excellent news! I don’t suppose you could give us a preview?


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