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A penny saved is probably collectible. February 7, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about whether making cents makes sense. Canada has decided to officially retire its penny this month, making Canadian 2013 pennies automatically collectible for small-change enthusiasts like your truly. Next time a clerk hands you a Canadian penny with your change, think twice about complaining!

This once again raises the question of the continuing production of U.S. cents. The cost of the metals (mostly zinc) used to produce today’s pennies have risen above the face value of the penny itself: It now costs 2.41 cents to make each 1-cent coin. (To put this in perspective, consider a gold coin with a face value of $20, now valued for its gold content at between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the market.)

Congress has repeatedly tried to do away with the penny and make the nickel the lowest-value piece of change in circulation. But the uproar raised by coin collectors has so far kept the penny in circulation. As a collector, I’m all for the penny. But as a realist, I can’t imagine that its days aren’t numbered.

Collecting today’s pennies is a bit of an issue, I’ll admit. Even if you find some spanking-new, brilliantly lustered pennies in your pocket or at your bank, I’ve noticed that they quickly develop disfiguring spots, something I’ve never seen on older pennies. Once that happens, all they’re fit for is pocket change. Rats! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to the pennies in collector proof sets. (Mind you, perhaps they’re just responding to the humid air in my apartment and your pennies wouldn’t spot up like mine.)

At any rate, the only modern pennies that will ever have any real monetary value are the “errors,” those that somehow got messed up during the minting process and weren’t caught by the mint before being released. This rarely happens with any coin, which is why collectors love error coins. (Examples would be coins that are struck twice, creating a double image; coins with two fronts or two backs; coins struck off-center; coins with one date superimposed on another; and coins struck on the wrong planchet, the blank metal disk that becomes a coin when struck with the machine dies to stamp the coin. A dime pattern struck on a penny planchet would be an example of this.)

Valuable or not, I find collecting pennies fun, whether they’re the multi-patterned new Lincoln cents, the old “wheat ears” Lincolns, the “silver” war pennies, the classic Indian head pennies, or the 50-cent-sized, heavy old pennies that go clear back to the early days of our Republic, when, as our hero and blog mentor Benjamin Franklin noted, a penny was really worth something. In less-good grades, and with the exception of rarities, they’re affordable for everyone, something that certainly can’t be said about many collectible coins. (And of course, modern pennies are very affordable in the best grades, which means in the most perfect condition.) Not to mention that, every once in awhile, you might still turn up a “wheat ears” penny in pocket change! Try doing that with a silver dime or quarter.

So what’s your view? Keep the penny or kill it? I’d love to hear from you!


Richard Saunders


Where are the parks quarters?! January 14, 2011

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask the burning question: Have you actually seen any of the National Parks Quarters in pocket change? As a chump-change coin collector, I bought one of those fold-up books to hold my collection of National Parks Quarters, issued by the U.S. Treasury following the huge success of the 50 State Quarters program.

That was last year. I still had yet to see a single parks quarter show up in pocket change until last week, when a Yellowstone quarter appeared in my pocket. But wouldn’t you know, it had a black smudge on it so I couldn’t even use it in my book!

Yikes. Where are all those National Parks Quarters? Are you finding them in your purse or pocket? What’s the holdup here?!! Let me know if other parts of the country are luckier than Pennsylvania in this respect. I hate to think that my quarters book is going to stay empty.

            Your friend,

                        Richard Saunders

Got a penny, Penny? March 29, 2009

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk once again about dollars and cents, or at least, cents, popularly known as pennies. In a post last month (“A new look for Lincoln”), I wrote about how, to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, first released in 1909 to mark the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, the U.S. Mint was releasing four new designs for the back of the cent, starting in February on Lincoln’s birthday, then appearing every three months through 2009. So, where is it?!

I’m a pocket-change collector from way back. I’ve pulled nice examples of the state quarters and the new Jefferson nickels out of pocket change, and have been known to stop by the bank to see if the latest presidential dollar had arrived. (“I’d like five, please.”) Last time I stopped by the bank, I asked if they had the new pennies. The answer dismayed me: “No, and we’re not likely to get them.” What?!! Well, apparently the bank already has plenty of pennies, and the place (unspecified) that supplies them with pennies has plenty of pennies, and there’s just no need to order any of the new pennies.

What’s a poor collector to do?! Well, there’s always the U.S. Mint. I headed over to their website (www.usmint.gov) and clicked on their online catalog. Trying to find any pennies took a nearly Herculean effort, but I finally spotted them under the “Bags and Rolls” listing. Now, I wasn’t really in the market for a whole roll of pennies, but I figured hey, if that’s the only way I can get some, at least they’re only pennies, so they won’t cost bazillion dollars. I clicked the link. Guess what? “SOLD OUT.” Aaaarrrgh!!!

Has anybody out there actually gotten any of the new pennies in pocket change? If so, lucky you. Maybe you’d better hang onto them!

And by the way, in case you’re wondering, this post’s title is the first line of a Depression-era jazz song, “Got a Penny,” that’s performed by The Nat King Cole Trio in one of my classic jazz collections. It seemed appropriate!

A new look for Lincoln. February 13, 2009

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about dollars and cents—specifically, Lincoln dollars and cents. As you all know, our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born on February 12th, 1809, so this year marks the 200th anniversary of his birth.

But here’s something you may not know: To mark his hundredth anniversary back in 1909, the U.S. Mint created a commemorative penny, the Lincoln cent. It replaced the Indian-head penny, supposedly just for the anniversary year. But the new design proved so popular that we’ve been saving and spending Lincoln pennies for the past hundred years.

The original Lincoln cent had a pair of idealized Art Nouveau wheat stalks on the back, and is now known as the wheat-ears cent. Then, in 1959, the design was changed to show the Lincoln Memorial on the back. (Numismatists, aka coin collectors, call the back of a coin the reverse and the front the obverse, just so you know. They’d also as soon drop dead as refer to a cent as a penny, for reasons that have never been clear to me.)

To celebrate Lincoln’s Bicentennial, the Mint is planning to issue not one but four new penny—I mean, cent—designs, starting on his birthday, February 12th, and then releasing a new design every three months through the year. Only the back (reverse) design will change, following Lincoln’s career from his birth in a log cabin in Kentucky through his youth, early career, and presidency.

Then, in 2010, there will be a new, permanent  design on the back of the venerable cent. The Lincoln Memorial will go the way of the wheat ears. I have to say, I’ll miss it. But I’m looking forward to seeing the new design, which will celebrate Lincoln’s keeping the States of America united. Wonder what it will be?

New pennies aren’t the only thing the Mint has up its sleeve. Also on February 12th, it released a commemorative Lincoln silver dollar, featuring a striking image of Honest Abe on the front and the end of the Gettysburg Address on the back. (Pardon the pun—coins are referred to as being struck rather than stamped with their images.) Can’t quite remember the end of the Gettysburg Address? “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Today’s pennies have just a thin veneer of copper over a zinc base, but when the Lincoln cent debuted in 1909, its composition was 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. The U.S. Mint is releasing special sets of the Bicentennial pennies in the original composition, if you’d like to purchase a piece of history.

Two other things you should know about Lincoln pennies: First, the original design created a scandal when it appeared in 1909. The designer’s initials, VDB (for Victor David Brenner), appeared between the wheat ears at the bottom of the back of the penny. Apparently, people were outraged, believing that the intitials stood for some occult or Masonic credo. A great outcry arose, and the designer’s initials were hastily pulled from subsequent strikings. In 1918, they were finally restored—discreetly this time—on the back of the coin. Today, of course, the comparatively rare 1909 “VDB” cent commands premium prices among collectors, and the even rarer 1909-S (San Francisco Mint) “VDB” cent can sell for thousands of dollars.

The second thing you should know is that during World War II, Lincoln cents turned “silver.” These “silver pennies” weren’t really silver at all, but they looked like silver. That’s because our government needed every bit of available copper to make shells for the war effort. In 1943, Lincoln cents were made of zinc-coated steel. (They were hastily discontinued once it became obvious that they rusted.) I think everyone should have several of these in their collection for the historical value alone, but don’t be fooled by folks who are hyping them as great rarities: You can buy a circulated “silver penny” for 12 to 15 cents, and even uncirculated examples sell for about 50 cents.

There’s one final thing you should know about the Lincoln cent: Its appearance marked the first time a real person had been used on a U.S. coin intended for circulation. Previously, various artistic interpretations of “Lady Liberty” were typically featured, along with more prosaic numerical designs and the occasional eagle or idealized Native American. The Lincoln cent ushered in the era of representational coinage that produced the Franklin and Kennedy half-dollars, Washington quarters, Roosevelt dimes, Jefferson nickels, and Eisenhower and Susan B. Anthony dollars that most of us grew up with.

The other Roosevelt. July 17, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk a bit about one of my favorite presidents: Teddy Roosevelt. The name “Roosevelt” usually brings Franklin D. and Eleanor, Teddy’s cousins, to mind, while Teddy himself is usually dismissed as a lightweight, a cartoon, the big-game hunter who gave his name to the teddy bear and said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” But in his own day, TR, as he was known, was not just idolized by the American public, he was adored—the best-loved president since Lincoln.

As a child, I wondered why on earth they had carved Teddy Roosevelt of all people on Mount Rushmore alongside those titans, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. To me, they might as well have stuck Calvin Coolidge or Chester A. Arthur on there instead. But in his own time, including the “old lion” with the three greatest presidents made sense, and for more than one reason, as we’ll see. Now that Teddy is once again making headlines, it’s time to give him another look.

‘Til recently, if I thought of Teddy Roosevelt at all, it was as a caricature—a walrus of a man with that oversized mustache, the gold pince-nez specs, and his omnipresent top hat, sort of like the little guy on the Monopoly box. Or perhaps in his alternate guise as the Great White Hunter, attired in buckskins or pith helmet and safari garb and blasting away at buffalo, bears, and every other creature that came within reach of his gun. It was only when I was researching one of my favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, that my views on Teddy began to change. I discovered that one of the biographies of Morris was written by none other than Teddy Roosevelt. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt wrote books?!

Turns out that TR not only wrote books, 18 of them, including a naval history of the War of 1812 that was considered the definitive work on the subject, but he also read books. Lots of books. He apparently read several books a day, in several languages, despite having a few other things to do, including running the country. In all, he read tens of thousands of books, and ranks with Jefferson as the two best-read American politicians. Huh? Teddy Roosevelt was smart?!

Damned smart. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and studied a wide range of challenging topics while there, acing his studies despite spending most of his college years socializing and enjoying a variety of sports. He wrote and illustrated his first natural history monograph, “The Natural History of Insects,” at age nine. (And even as a child he was an excellent artist, sketching birds and other natural subjects from life.) He had a photographic memory, and could recall every word not just of his books but of the huge stack of newspapers he read each morning at lightning speed and scattered all over the floor around him, despite carrying on a lively conversation and/or dictating memoranda at the same time.

Hmmm. Looks like I’d been selling TR short, especially since I already knew two admirable things about him: First, that we pretty much owe our National Parks system to him—during his presidency, he set aside 194 million acres for national parks, wildlife refuges, and nature preserves, including the Grand Canyon. And second, that it’s thanks to him that we have the most beautiful and evocative coinage ever created in America. As a coin collector, I’m grateful to Teddy for insisting that our coinage be updated. He not only gave us the Lincoln cent and buffalo nickel, but also the loveliest of all our coins, the St. Gaudens $20 and $10 gold pieces. And he opened the door for the other great coins of the century, the walking liberty half dollar and the Mercury dime. I know there’s been a lot of agitation in recent years to take FDR off the dime. If it happens, it would be far more fitting to replace him with the Father of the Golden Age of American Coinage, his cousin Teddy, than with any other president.

Anyway, not long ago I came upon a book called Mornings on Horseback by the historian David McCullough, chronicling Teddy Roosevelt’s life from birth through his twenties. Since I wanted to learn more about Teddy and it was a very interesting period in American life, covering as it did the period from the end of the Civil War (the child Teddy actually saw Lincoln’s funeral cortege) through the Gay Nineties and into the new century, I snapped it up and have been reading steadily ever since.

McCullough stressed one element of TR’s character and public life that I hadn’t known about—his strong moral character and lifelong fight against corruption. As Commissioner of Police, he reformed the corrupt New York Police Department, and as Mayor of New York, he trashed Tammany Hall and broke the power of the aldermen and their legendary bribe system. Throughout his career, he was known as a trust-buster, bringing 44 lawsuits against trusts while president and doing his utmost to bring the Robber Barons down. (Hmmm, maybe that resemblance to the Monopoly guy is no coincidence. Perhaps the inventor of Monopoly gave TR an ironic tip of the top hat, since Roosevelt spent his life trying to break up monopolies.)

Roosevelt also proposed the “square deal” and was responsible for both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Between preserving places of natural beauty for Americans to enjoy, safeguarding their food, and fighting Big Money and the corruption it spawned, no wonder the people loved him.

What else did Teddy Roosevelt do? He created Panama as an independent nation and was responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal. He created a volunteer corps, the Rough Riders, and led them on the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, posthumously receiving America’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, for his bravery and service to his country, the only president to do so. (Geez, how about a posthumous award for George Washington, folks?!) He negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, becoming the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. He remains the only person ever to have won both a Nobel Prize and the Medal of Honor.

Teddy Roosevelt was also the first modern president. He was the first president to ride in an automobile and in a submarine; he was the first to travel abroad as president. His insistence on making safe food and green spaces available to all citizens is also very modern.

TR wasn’t perfect; he had flaws of judgment like any man, smart and educated or otherwise. But he was incorruptible, and his strong moral character is legendary. His desire to do what was right at all times, his personal fearlessness while pursuing what was right (alone among politicians, he never even paused when taking on the wealthiest and most influential, and incidentally corrupt, men of his day, such as the great Robber Baron Jay Gould), and his unique gift for getting things done set him apart. No wonder historians consistently rank him as one of the five—and often one of the three—greatest presidents. No wonder he was honored at Mount Rushmore.

The historian Henry Adams said of Theodore Roosevelt, “Roosevelt, more than any other living man… showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that mediaeval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.” But that thought, impressive as it is, doesn’t really do TR justice. For he obviously absorbed huge amounts of knowledge and combined thought with action. But more than that, he was that rarest thing, pure of heart. It’s time we gave Teddy Roosevelt a “square deal,” took him out of the toy box, and restored him to the honored place in our history that he deserves.

When is an Indian not an Indian? June 8, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about some of the little-known but fascinating facts of U.S. coinage. (Earlier posts on the subject include “Big bucks and silver dollars,” “Don’t accept any wooden nickels,” “Forget wooden nickels—go for the gold!” and “Can a penny be saved?”) Today, let’s look at the history of Native Americans on our coins.

First, think about it: How many U.S. coins can you think of with Indians on them?

You probably remember seeing an Indian on the front of the buffalo nickel. And you might remember seeing an Indian head penny. These were the designs immediately preceding the arrival of Thomas Jefferson on the nickel and Abraham Lincoln on the cent. The Indian and buffalo graced the nickel for 25 years, from 1913 through 1938. The Indian and wreath design was used on the cent for 50 years, from 1859 through 1909, when Lincoln took over. 

These aren’t the only coins that used Indians on the front. The next most famous was the spectacular $10 gold piece designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who is considered the greatest of all American coinage designers. But Saint-Gaudens wasn’t the only designer who thought a golden Indian looked good. Bela Lyon Pratt used a stern Indian chief on both his $5 and $2.50 gold pieces. James B. Longacre, designer of the Indian head penny, also used several Indian portraits on $1 and $3 gold coins. And let’s not forget our modern “golden dollar”—alas, not gold at all but golden in appearance—featuring Sacagawea, which has been minted every year from 2000 to the present.  

Native Americans have also figured prominently on another type of coin. Called commemoratives, these coins were struck to commemorate specific people or occasions and were made for the collector market rather than for circulation. Four commemorative silver dollars feature Indian motifs. The first, the Oregon Trail Memorial, shows a chief at full length on the front with an ox-drawn covered wagon on the back. Designed by James E. Fraser, who also created the buffalo nickel, and his wife, Laura, this is probably the best-loved of all commemoratives. It was released repeatedly, in 1926, 1928, 1933, 1934, and every year from 1936 through 1939. In 2001, Fraser’s buffalo nickel design was also released as a silver dollar. The Daniel Boone bicentennial silver dollar, released from 1935 through 1938, showed Boone standing with a chief on the reverse. And the Arkansas centennial silver dollar, released from 1935 through 1939, showed a chief on the front alongside Lady Liberty.

By now, you might be thinking that the answer to my title question—“When is an Indian not an Indian?”—must be “When it’s a coin.” But the reality is much more interesting. The truth is that few of the famous Indian coins actually showed Native Americans.

James Longacre used his young daughter as a model for the “Indians” on his penny and gold pieces. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who considered himself to be creating a portrait of Lady Liberty in an Indian headdress rather than portraying an actual Native American on his $10 gold piece, also used a young Caucasian woman as his model. (If you look closely, you’ll see that their features are very delicate, more Alice in Wonderland than Sitting Bull or Chief Joseph.)

Even James Earle Fraser, who did use Native Americans as models for his famous nickel, created a composite portrait of three chiefs, Iron Tail, Two Moons, and John Big Tree, rather than sculpting from a single model. But at least the portrait on the nickel looks like both a Native American and a man! (Ironically, the buffalo on the reverse was modeled from a single bison, Black Diamond, a famous specimen then on display at the Central Park Zoo.) The first person to use a real Native American rather than a white model on a coin was actually Bela Pratt, whose then-daring and controversial gold coins portray an Indian brave modeled on a photograph. Unfortunately, his identity is unknown.

I think it’s fun to collect these Indian-themed coins. But I also think it’s high time we honored some famous Native American leaders with a series of coins of their own. I’d be thrilled to see a series featuring Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Cochise, Chief Joseph, Black Elk, Powhatan, Red Cloud, and so on. Perhaps now that the State Quarters series is about to run its course, we could do a Native American series instead. (You folks at the U.S. Mint, are you listening?!) What do you think? Sure beats a bunch of girls in eagle-feather headdresses!      

Forget wooden nickels; go for the gold! May 9, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to continue our discussion of dollars and sense—or, in this case, of gold, fraud, and cents. Five cents, to be exact. (If you’ve missed my previous posts on intriguing facts about U.S. coinage, see “Can a penny be saved?”, “Big bucks and silver dollars,” and “Don’t accept any wooden nickels.”)

Let’s start with some interesting facts about gold. Gold was indeed the “gold standard” of U.S. coinage until 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt demanded that U.S. citizens turn in their gold coins to the government and single-handedly brought about the end of an era, an era that had ironically seen its fullest flowering with the beautiful gold coins commissioned by his cousin Teddy Roosevelt. (Fortunately for coin collectors, they weren’t all melted down, and many are available on the coin market today.) But before FDR, any citizen could use gold coins as legal tender, and there was a wide range of them available, from teensy little bits of “fractional” gold (i.e., fractions of a dollar, such as 50 cents) to hefty $20 gold pieces the size of today’s quarters, but about as thick as two of them stuck together.

Gold coins have been minted in the U.S. since the early days of the Republic, starting in 1795. But they didn’t become widely available until gold was discovered in California and the Gold Rush, which began in earnest in 1849 (remember those Forty-Niners?), made gold more plentiful. Okay, so where did it come from before that?

Believe it or not, our early gold coinage came out of the South. Let me test your memory here: How many mints are there in the U.S.? If you came up with three—Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco—that’s not bad. But there’s actually a fourth, West Point, which produces American Eagle silver and gold bullion coins. However, there have been other mints, as the U.S. government tried to keep pace with Westward expansion. At one time, both New Orleans and Carson City had U.S. mints. But let’s get back to the gold. Denver wasn’t the first mint to put a “D” on their coins. That honor goes to the mint in Dahlonega, Georgia. Pre-gold rush gold coins were minted there and in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Gold coins from Dahlonega and Charlotte don’t look a whole lot like gold as we think of it today, that rich, red-gold color of California gold. The early Southern coinage was more of a pale, green-gold color. Most people never saw it anyway, though, since the common coins were silver dollars, half-dollars, quarter-dollars, dimes, and half-dimes, and copper pennies. (Two- and three-cent coins wouldn’t come along until later, but that’s another story.)

What do I mean, half-dimes? The earliest five-cent pieces were small silver coins called half-dimes, or, in their earliest incarnations, half-dismes. But these little pieces of silver were easy to lose. So in 1866, the mint produced a 5-cent piece that was much bigger—almost the size of today’s nickel—in a copper-nickel composition (that’s what our nickels are still made of today), and the “nickel” was born. It must be admitted that this new form of coinage was no thing of beauty, however. In the spirit of Civil War victory, the coin displayed a shield on one side and a big “5” surrounded by stars and rays, then just stars, on the reverse, with “cents” at the bottom. The public, already being asked to give up a silver coin for base metal, was also being asked to accept an ugly, boring coin. But the design endured until 1883, when the mint decided it was time for a design upgrade.

And that’s where gold, greed, and good old American opportunism re-enter the picture. You see, the mint made a terrible mistake. The new coin, now the comparatively hefty size of today’s nickel, bore the bust of a rather bovine Lady Liberty on the front and the Roman numeral “V” surrounded by a wreath on the back. But in streamlining the design of the back and upgrading the previous “5” to the more elegant Roman numeral, they left off the humble “cents” that had previously appeared in the lower part of the design.

It didn’t occur to the mint in those days to launch new coins with publicity campaigns like the ones that accompanied the release of our state quarters or the Lewis & Clark commemorative nickel series. It just made the coins and sent them out into the vast and still not entirely charted expanse of America, where news travelled slowly, a lot more slowly than unscrupulous con men.

Here’s what happened: The mint, doubtless delighted to have gotten that ugly shield off the five-cent piece and anticipating a warm reception from the public, pumped out almost 5.5 million of the new nickels. And the con men, ever alert to new opportunities, got busy right away. American citizens weren’t familiar with the new coins. They had a big old “V” on the back. There was nothing on there to indicate that this meant “5 cents.” The crooks simply had to dip them in a thin coat of gold and—voila!—they had big, hefty, shiny $5 gold pieces to put into circulation in exchange for goods or currency or change that were actually worth five dollars. It was a thief’s bonanza.

Let’s put the scam in perspective. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the annoying tendency of store clerks to run some kind of Magic Marker over your $20 bills to see if they’re counterfeits before accepting them when you’re trying to make a purchase. (Hey! Since you got them out of the ATM to begin with, isn’t it the bank’s fault if they’re counterfeits, not yours?!) But even if they find that your $20 is no good, it isn’t the end of the world. In 1883, however, it might have made the difference between making it through the week and going hungry. The average salary at that time was less than $1,000—in many cases, a lot less. Suppose you made a whopping $600 a year. If somebody pawned off a worthless “$5” coin on you, that would be almost half a week’s wages!

Fortunately, the mint woke up to what was going on. They quickly brought out over 16 million new nickels that same year, with the same basic design but an important modification: Under the wreath, the word “cents” appeared. The scam artists were out of luck. They had to go back to trying to counterfeit actual gold pieces, which required a lot of skill, as opposed to just dipping coins in gold plate. The bonanza was over.

The mint continued to make nickels with the Liberty design until 1913, when they introduced James Earle Fraser’s marvelous buffalo nickel. (And there’s an incredible story about that, but I’ll save it for another post.) Today’s collectors can find the original 1883 “V” nickel and the 1883-1912 “V” with “cents” nickels, which, except for the years 1885, 1886, and 1912S, are very reasonably priced. And, if you’re really lucky, you might also be able to find one of the gold-plated 1883 nickels as well. I have a little collection of fake coins, and I was able to find one locally for a pretty reasonable price. You, too, can enjoy owning this little oddity of American history. Just remember: Don’t accept any wooden nickels (or gold ones, either!).        

Big bucks and silver dollars March 12, 2008

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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to resume my discussion of dollars and sense. Ever wonder why we call a dollar a buck? I did, too. So let’s put on our deerstalker caps and follow the money trail to find some answers. As Sherlock Holmes would say, the game is afoot!

Back in Colonial times, America’s money was a mess. The colonies all minted their own money, merchants minted coin-like tokens with monetary value, and everybody used all types and stripes of foreign coinage right alongside the local versions. Lots of people didn’t have money at all, and bartered goods that they raised or made in exchange for goods they needed. (Still a great idea, in my opinion.)

With all this money madness, one coin emerged as the “gold standard” (in quotes because it was actually a silver coin) of reliability. Everyone recognized it, and everyone acknowledged its value. It became the most popular coin in the Colonies. The Susan B. Anthony dollar? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) No: the Spanish dollar.

The so-called Spanish dollar, or 8-reales (“royals”) piece, was a hefty silver dollar minted all over the Spanish colonies of Central and South America as well as in Spain. In Colonial times, the guy on the front was usually King Carlos IV (on the coin, Carolus IIII), though his predecessor Carlos III also showed up regularly. In a time when a dollar was a lot of money, these big coins were often broken up into smaller denominations–into fourths, or quarters (yes, that’s where our quarter comes from), or into eighths (and if you’re reminded of the infamous piratical “pieces of eight,” yup, these were the ones they meant).

Okay, where does the buck come in? Deer meat was pretty popular on Colonial backwoods tables, and deer hides commanded a good price in trade. In fact, a buck’s hide was valued at–you guessed it, a Spanish dollar! To this day, the word buck has lingered in our collective vocabulary as a synonym for dollar. I discovered this intriguing fact just last week while reading Robert Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone (called simply Boone: A Biography). Mr. Morgan’s knowledge of the period must be encyclopedic indeed. Mystery solved!

But wait, you say. Where does the word dollar come from, anyway? That’s a little easier to answer. Some of the first countries to produce big, standardized silver coins were the German States. They made gorgeous coins called thalers that collectors like our friend Ben lust after to this day. In much of Germany, the thaler was pronounced like “taller.” But in low German, it was pronounced like–you guessed it again–“dollar.”

Just goes to show that, like us, American coinage has a very diverse and international background. And in case you were wondering, the Spanish dollar remained legal tender in the U.S. until 1857, when Congress insisted that everybody use U.S.-minted coinage. (Hey–where does that phrase “legal tender” come from, anyway? That’s a good topic for a future post…)        

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?