Pennies

David D. Creekmore

I used to know a lady whose name was Penny. She was fond of saying “I’m nearly worthless- I’m only a penny.” Since she was an office manager for a large organization, this was a miss-statement of a major type. That being said, what do we know about pennies?

First of all, the pennies of recent years have Lincoln’s face on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the back. Since you can, with the aid of a large magnifying glass, make out the fact that Lincoln’s statue is visible in the memorial, this is the only coin that is heads on both sides. Try that one out the next time you are flipping for the check. 

The history of the penny is long, and to me, fascinating. The penny was the first coin the United States minted in 1787. Along with this coin, we also minted the half-cent. Money was worth a lot more then. Since their introduction in 1787, more than 300 billion pennies have been minted in 11 different designs. Lincoln has appeared on pennies since 1909. Lincoln pennies are the only coin that the bust faces right instead of left. The simple reason for this is that the original designer, Victor David Brenner , worked from a photo of Lincoln that showed him facing right. A simple explanation, but many people have attributed other hidden meanings to the coin.

One of the most popular designs of the penny was the Indian head penny introduced in 1859. It followed a short, three year run of “flying” pennies that were the first small-same size as today-pennies.  Up until this time, pennies were large coins, about the size of a quarter. They had so much copper in them that manufacturers would bring wagons to the mint, and purchase thousands of dollars worth to melt down. It was cheaper than buying copper on the open market. The small pennies put a stop to this, and the Indian head design lasted until 1909. Pennies have not been made of pure copper since 1864. A zinc and copper mix was used to harden the coins.

During World War II, the mint used expended shell casings to make pennies. For the last three years of the war, steel was used. It was in 1943 that the steel pennies came into use, but about 40 1943 pennies were made of copper. The last one of those that sold was in 1999. It went for $112,500.

You might start looking at the lowly penny in hopes of finding one of these treasures. Due to the increasing cost of materials, it costs about $.03 to make a penny. Presently, they are made of a zinc mixture.

On the Indian head penny, an Indian “princess” appeared. She was neither a Native American, nor a princess. She was the designer’s daughter- Sarah Longacre. All pennies have the initials of the designers who drew the sculpture. Since 1959, the initials of Frank Gasparro have been in the shrubbery to the right of the Lincoln Memorial. From 1918 to 1958 the initials of Victor David Brenner appear under Lincoln’s shoulder. One source of destruction of pennies began at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A machine was invented that put the pennies through two rollers, imprinting a different image on it. These machines are everywhere- even at Disney land. It is estimated that 12 million pennies are flattened, and sold as souvenirs at various amusement parks. The big pennies from 1787 to 1857 bring anywhere from $30 to several hundred dollars.

You would think that pennies would be the last thing that someone would counterfeit. Not so. During the Civil war, sutlers- merchants that followed the troops struck coins that resembled a penny, but were only good at that sutler’s store. These trade coins are much more valuable than the pennies of the day, and resemble pennies so closely that they are easily mistaken for the coin that they are counterfeiting.

Collecting pennies is a fascinating hobby. I often wonder how many are in those blue paper folders that seem to be in everyone’s dresser drawers. I suspect they equal the number that are in circulation. Even the United States has, by the currency act of 1894, eliminated the use of pennies for the payment of government obligations. This came about because people who were angry would try to pay taxes in pennies. No toll road will accept pennies except Illinois. Since that is Lincoln’s home state, pennies are accepted even at toll roads. This in honor of their most famous citizen.

By David Creekmore

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