Ever wonder where we’d be today without money? There would be no wooden nickels to take, no comparisons to a three-dollar bill, and nothing would be worthless as a Confederate dollar or a plugged nickel. No more penny pinchers, or penny loafers, and we’d never again hear the expressions “Penny for your thoughts” or “Another day, another dollar” or the question “Brother, can you spare a dime?”
So why do we want money in the first place especially since some say the love of it is the root of all evil? And, at the end of the day when you do get some, it seems you always want more. Isn’t there something better to hide under the mattress?
The term “money” may have been used as early as 2200 BCE, and metal money and coins probably had their beginnings in China around the end of the Stone Age. In 700 BCE, a group of people living in what is now Turkey were using coins as legal tender. It took a long time, however, for the worldwide use of paper money and coins to catch hold.
The first penny, known as the Fugio cent, was struck for the US in 1787 by a private mint. It was 100% copper and remained so until the mid-1800s. The Indian cent was introduced in 1859 and depicted an Indian princess on one side. The penny with which most of us are acquainted—the Lincoln cent—appeared in 1909. It was at this time that the motto “In God We Trust” was placed on the penny. The phrase was authorized by Congress during Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as president. Since 1787, 300 billion one-cent coins have been minted in the US.
Over the years, there have been several changes in the percentages of the metal used in making the penny as well as the side opposite Lincoln’s bust. Four new tails’ designs are in the works for 2009 with another one later planned to depict the Civil War president’s legacy.
Since more Lincoln pennies are produced than any other US coin, it has become a highly familiar part of Americana. Still, some people feel we should get rid of the penny since it barely counts as currency anymore. That idea was floated in 1991 when a bill to round off purchases to the nearest nickel was presented in Congress. Even though it failed to gain much support, the idea wasn’t forgotten.
Five years ago, a bill was introduced in Congress to eliminate the penny because some consider it simply a pesky trinket. In the coming weeks, it is anticipated that another attempt will be made in Congress to remove the penny from circulation.
The dropping of a coin from the US currency is certainly not unprecedented. We used to have a half penny, but in 1857, it was thought this coin was too burdensome and not worth carrying around. Thus, it was removed. Is the penny on the same track?
A Gallup Poll found in 2002 that 58% of Americans basically use their pennies as fodder for piggy banks, fruit jars, dresser drawers, and other crevices or receptacles; 2% just throw them away. Seems a shame to just toss them when you could rub two of them together or squeeze them until Lincoln cries. Or maybe even follow the concept that, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Maybe that’s why so many people have caches of pennies squirreled away in their houses.
The collectible value of a coin is usually determined by its historic significance, scarcity, and/or the intrinsic value of the metal from which the coin is produced. In modern times, since most coins are made of a base metal, the monetary value is usually set by the government authority that issues the coins.
In 1960, a penny had about the same value as a nickel does now. Since then its value has continually dropped. Today, with the rising prices of zinc and copper, the metals of which the penny is now comprised, the coin costs more to make than it’s worth—about 1.4 cents for each 1-cent piece minted (including production expenses).
More than half of the coins produced by US mints are pennies. Cost estimates to supply the number of pennies required this year reach up to $44 million, an increase of nearly $14 million over 2005. If this pattern continues, the metal might eventually be more valuable than the face value of the coin.
Although pocketing the penny for good might make economic and practical sense in some ways, to no longer have it around would probably be a real loss to the English language. At least, that’s my two-cents worth on the matter.