From a very early age, I was fascinated with and drawn to the humble penny. My fascination, so far as I can recall, began around the age of seven. As a child, I noticed how people treated the seemingly worthless disc.
Pennies seemed ubiquitous. I saw them everywhere: from the convenience store floor, where consumers rejected their change if it happened to be less than a nickel, to a father giving his smiling youngster loose coins from his weighed-down pockets, to school children donating them into large charity jars and donation cans — or just strewn randomly on the ground, as if the copper coins were a bothersome burden.
These apathetic actions toward the miniscule currency sparked my empathy for, and drive to collect, the monetary misfits whenever I managed to stumble upon them. Since the rest of the world was indifferent to the penny, I was able and most definitely willing to collect them at a rather quick rate. Nevertheless, after years of handling and accumulating those little copper coins, I only recently realized that I’ve been virtually ignorant of their interesting historical journey and story.
While researching the currency for this assignment, I learned many intriguing and little-known facts. For example, the penny was the very first official legal tender created by the United States, debuting in 1787. The first one-cent coin was struck by a private mint. The design of the penny was initially suggested by Benjamin Franklin, one of our nation’s Founding Fathers, and a very influential man from our country’s early existence.
The metal composition of the penny changed often over the years. The coin was first known as the Fugio Cent and was comprised of 100 percent copper. This composition would continue until the mid-1800s. The Flying Eagle Cent was first produced in 1856. The notable change in composition went from the original make-up of 100 percent copper to the more efficient downgrade of 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel.
A few short years later came the Indian Cent, introduced in 1859. It depicted an Indian princess on the obverse (the front side). A majority of Indian Cent coins went primarily to pay Union soldiers. Towards the conclusion of the Civil War, in 1864, the composition was once again altered. This time, however, the currency experienced an upgrade, being fashioned out of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. During World War II, zinc-coated steel cents would be struck as a result of a copper shortage.
In 1909 an historical figure would grace a United States coin for the very first time, an honor bestowed upon Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president. A greatly influential figure for our country in his time, Lincoln was emblazoned upon our one-cent coin to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday. In 2009, to honor the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, four penny designs depicting different aspects of his life were minted and circulated. The Lincoln penny was also the first US coin to include our proud saying “In God We Trust.”
Collecting copper pennies has been interesting and fun for me ever since my childhood. Although typically held in little esteem, I have found that pennies have played an entertaining and positive role throughout my life. My newly discovered knowledge of their history has added another dimension to collecting pennies: I now have a better appreciation for the little copper disc.
The next time you are given change from a purchase at the grocery store, or when you are rifling through your pockets at the end of the day, you might take a moment and reflect on its history. You may also reflect on Ben Franklin, sitting in a room full of powerful delegates and congressman, passionately pitching his idea for America’s very first official currency to be circulated to the public, comprised of 100 percent copper . . . the humble little penny. I hope that my research, along with my personal story, will make you appreciate the little one-cent coin just a little more.