A Penny for Your Thoughts

Posted on 28 January 2010


How many times have you walked through a mall or a supermarket lot and spied a penny waiting to be picked up by a superstitious or thrifty individual?  Benjamin Franklin said, “A penny saved is a penny earned” and rightly so, because those who turned up their noses at this noble coin did not understand its historic worth, or its potential monetary value.

Just as new religions incorporate some customs of existing faiths before giving the old ones the boot, so did we newly minted Americans, fresh from the War of Independence, embrace many elements of British culture.  The word “penny” has its roots in the British Empire; their coin of the realm, equal to that of the American cent, was termed “pence”.  The U.S. Treasury’s official name for the penny is “the cent piece”, equating to one one-hundredth of one dollar in monetary value.  The first cent, whose symbol is ¢, was minted in copper from 1793 through 1857, and has gone though many changes during since.

In 1909, on the obverse or “heads” side, the penny featured the profile of Abraham Lincoln in celebration of the centennial of his birth.  From 1959 throuigh 2008, the reverse (“tails”) side featured the Lincoln Memorial to honor the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.  In 2009, four different reverse designs were introduced to commemorate our 16th President’s 200th birthday, and in 2010, a permanent reverse design was created.

Why President Lincoln’s is the featured profile for this coin is somewhat of a mystery.  Maybe because he was thought of as a common man, he was portrayed on a common coin?   I really don’t know!

A little history of the coin’s composition follows:

YEAR                                       MATERIAL

1793 to 1857                             Copper

1857 to 1864                             89% Copper, 11% Nickel

1864 to 1942                             Bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and zinc)

1943                                         Zinc- coated Steel (AKA – the “steel penny”)

1944 to 1946                             Brass (95% copper, 5% zinc)

1946 to 1962                             Bronze (95% copper, 5% tin and zinc)

1962 to 1982                             Brass (95% copper, 5% zinc and titanium)

1982 to Present                          97.5% zinc core, 2.5% copper plating 

As you can see from this graph, the one-cent piece has changed with the price of copper and the need to use it during the war years.  The sole exception, in the early 1970’s, occurred when the price of copper rose to the point where it cost the government more than a penny per coin to stamp it.  The U.S. Mint tried other metals, including aluminum.  More than 1.5 million “tin foil” pennies were minted before being rejected for future pressings as the metal caused malfunctions with vending machines and harried doctors complained that they did not show up in the X-rays of inventive little tykes and bored college students.  One aluminum penny was donated to the Smithsonian Institute, to serve a part of an historic display.

Growing up during the Great Depression, I remember how a penny could buy two soft pretzels with mustard, two cigarettes with two matches, or a small ice cream cone served by a vendor.  Even the numbers runners took penny bets!  When my friends and I found a penny lying heads up, we chanted, “Penny, penny, bring me luck, for I’m the one who picked you up.”

I also remember this story about a guard who was employed in a factory in Camden, New Jersey.  He’d made a deal with the person assigned to collect the coins from the newspaper vending machine outside the plant.  In exchange for a single dollar bill, this guard was given all of the pennies in the machine.  This transaction occurred time and again for many years.  When the guard finally retired, he was in possession of more than 1,000,000 pennies all wrapped up for depositing into his bank account, which thus expanded it by $10,000.00!

The true value of the American cent, in accordance with the date stamped upon it, can be one of the hidden treasures that exist in our country today.  From the time of this coin’s inception, rare one-cent pieces can still be found in the attics, bureau drawers, cupboards, tin cans, and the piggy banks of our aged or deceased loved ones.  If you believe, as did Ben Franklin, that a penny saved is a penny earned, you may be the recipient of a rare and valuable find!





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18 Responses to “A Penny for Your Thoughts”

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  4. Remembering When says:

    A penny, huh? In my day, a penny would buy a decent sized piece of candy. Twelve of them would buy a great comic book. Fifty of them would buy a pretty head band (hair accessory). Three hundred of them … quite a lot for a kid! … would buy a brand new outfit for my Barbie doll, including accessories.

    Inflation stinks, doesn’t it?

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