Last week I used this space to say farewell to the king of pork. If you missed my piece about West Virginia’s rapacious senator, Robert Byrd, and the billions of taxpayer dollars he wrested for his state, click here to read it.
This week we’re going to lower the scale a bit. Well, actually, quite a bit. Instead of billions, I want to talk about the lowliest coin of them all—the penny. And let me start with a question: When you see one lying on the ground, do you pick it up? I certainly hope so. Bear with me as I tell one of my mother’s favorite tales; about the “Penny Angel” who showered so many rich blessings on her.
I don’t agree with much I read in The New York Times and an article about my favorite coin was no exception. The very first sentence had me shaking my head in disagreement. It read, “It is strewn around the sidewalks and gutters of America, amid the bottle caps and cigarette butts, not even worth bending over to fetch.”
Not worth bending over to fetch? I go out of my way to pick one up. And I consider myself lucky every time I find one. How about you?
In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about the lowly penny. In an essay in The New York Times, David Margolick wrote, “It languishes by cash registers in cheap plastic troughs or cardboard trays, yours to take or leave or ignore. Or it rattles around in beggars’ cups, making lots of noise but too puny, even by the handful, to swing a muffin or a hot cup of coffee.”
The main point of Margolick’s essay is that it’s time to do away with the poor, passé penny. The coin costs more to mint than its face value. It is a burden to business and an annoyance to consumers. It is, in short, more trouble than it’s worth.
But is it? My mother, who was a child of the Depression, hoarded pennies all her life. She taught me that there was a Penny Angel who went around scattering the tiny bits of copper for lucky people to discover. She believed that every coin she found was a blessing. And that if you ever ignored or rejected the Penny Angel’s gift, your good luck would soon come to an end.
A foolish fairy tale? Perhaps. But the lessons you learn as a child stay with you all of your life. I still consider myself fortunate whenever I see a penny lying in the street, just waiting for me to pick it up. It happened just a few hours ago and I was delighted to see that the Penny Angel was still leaving pennies for me to find. My wife, who finds my habit more amusing than irritating, has joined in the game. If I happen to overlook a coin in my path, she will point it out—and wait patiently while I pick it up.
How different it is for today’s sons and daughters. Even before they reach their teens, they have come to take for granted that their parents will purchase whatever Xbox, iPod, or other expensive electronic gizmo they want. They spend more on their clothes (or, more accurately, their parents do) than many families spend annually on food. Their parents surfeit them with every imaginable luxury. And the saddest thing of all is they do not look around with wonder and gratitude at the abundance they enjoy.
This is not going to become a jeremiad against the younger generation, bewailing the fact that “You don’t know how good you’ve got it!” It’s not their fault that they were born at a time and in a country with the greatest material prosperity the world has ever known.
And I’m not even going to launch a diatribe against their parents, many of whom are all too eager to shower their offspring with largesse. Even the ones who wonder if they should be stricter are often too cowardly to resist their children’s blandishments.
Instead, I’m just going to issue a small sigh of regret that something as quaint and as simple as picking up a penny—and being grateful for the gift—may soon disappear.
When it does, I’ll be the first to say, “So long, Penny Angel. But thank you for all the times you made me feel like one of the lucky ones, simply by placing a penny in my path.”
More About The Poor Penny
Maybe the Lincoln penny will soon be extinct. I doubt it. But even if it goes the way of the dodo bird or a gold-backed dollar, what a history it had. Here’s how David Margolick described its debut in the article I mentioned above:
“When it first appeared four score and 18 years ago, it was a matter of almost unimaginable curiosity, excitement, and veneration. People—mostly street urchins searching for a quick profit—lined up for blocks to buy them; in New York, mounted policemen were called in to control the roiling mobs. Editorialists praised it as the perfect tribute to a martyr, or denounced it as a trinket unworthy of him. Immigrants had a special reverence for it; to blacks, it was ’emancipation money.’ But even to whites, there was something sacred about it. A New York man who’d committed suicide a few days after it first appeared clutched one in the palm of his hand, thinking, apparently, that it would bring him good luck in the hereafter.”
President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Mint to design and produce the new Lincoln penny. He thought all U.S. coinage could use some sprucing up. Teddy decreed its release date to be Aug. 2, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. The Boston Globe was almost giddy with excitement: “The new Lincoln cents, it seems, will be distributed the first week of August. It is so hard to wait.”
Penny fever produced some unusual entrepreneurship. As Margolick reported, people lined up around the block to exchange their old coins for bright new pennies.
“Some people near the front of the lines sold their spots for a dollar. The more impatient and ingenious hired women, who in a still chivalrous era were not made to wait. Many in what the Tribune called ‘the penny-mad crowd’ were poor children…. The resale rate hovered around three new pennies for a nickel, though it shot up whenever supplies ran low. ‘You couldn’t walk half a dozen feet,’ the Sun reported, ‘without having a grimy hand thrust out in front of you with a pile of glittering pennies in the outstretched palm.'”
By the end of 1909 the Mint had produced more than 100 million of the new coins. More than 100 years later, the Lincoln penny is the most popular coin in history. The Mint had produced 444,039,035,418 by the end of last year. (Don’t you love the exactness of the bean counters, oops, I mean the penny counters, at the Mint? No rounding off these numbers.)
With nearly half a trillion pennies in circulation over the years, it’s no wonder my Penny Angel never ran out of treats.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.