Amazing Power of the Penny Save the American One Cent Coin
By: John Shepler
What's that laying on the ground? There. See it? That small
round object with the brown tint sends maybe 10,000 disadvantaged
students to college. It supports a children's hospital, a church
restoration, computers for grade school kids, preservation of
the rain forest, one man's retirement fund and even research
on a cure for leukemia. Incredibly, its presence in our money
system adds $40 million to the government's income each year.
Bend over. Pick it up. Add it to your own wealth. After all,
a penny saved is, well, you know, a penny earned.
Who said that, by the way? Benjamin Franklin. In fact it was
Franklin himself who suggested the design of the first one-cent
coin and got our "pocket change" started. In 1787 a
private mint struck the first U.S. penny, known as the Fugio
cent. It was made of 100% pure copper. None other than Paul Revere
himself would supply some of the copper used in making pennies
during the early 1790's.
How many pennies
have been minted since 1787? Take a guess and we'll see how close
you come to the real total. Hint: it's more than THAT. Guess
Speaking of mints. The U.S. Mint was the very first Federal
building to be erected by the government under the constitution.
And they say money doesn't make the world go round. Those innocuous
little pennies have changed hands in commerce through countless
transactions over the years. Some people think that we should
gather all the pennies together, melt them down to make electrical
wire and just charge at least a nickel for everything. Well,
there are at least two problems with that.
First of all, melting pennies to make copper wire might not
work too well, electrically speaking. Today's penny is only 2.5
percent copper. The rest is zinc. Pure copper pennies were minted
only until 1837. Then the composition changed to a copper alloy,
which included 95 percent copper for most of the years until
1982. The composition used for the last couple of decades has
a big advantage in that it only costs seven-tenths of a cent
to make a cent. The three-tenths cent profit is called seignorage.
A penny here, a penny there, and pretty soon it adds up the staggering
sum of $40 million a year. That's $40 million that won't have
to come out of your paycheck.
The other problem with getting rid of pennies and making the
nickel the lowest denomination coin is that most everyone is
going to round up not down. Anything that costs less than 3 cents
isn't going to be free. It's going to be a nickel. Unless you
count getting somebody's two-cents worth, which always seems
to be free regardless of whether you want it or not. On a larger
scale, store prices and bills will be rounded up to the next
five cents. One report to congress pegged the cost to consumers
at $600 million annually. Adds up, doesn't it?
Pennies just don't get the respect they deserve. It takes
a real pile of them to buy what a thin dime will buy. Quite a
few people unload their pockets at night and put those pennies
in jars and piggy banks that won't head to the bank for years
to come. As a result, some parts of the country are experiencing
a genuine penny shortage. Stores and banks are pleading for change
rather than bills. In extreme cases, they'll pay a dollar bill
for something less than 100 pennies. Now, don't you wish you'd
picked up those pennies in the parking lot instead of giving
them a kick?
By the way, some pennies are really valuable. The rarest,
with only four known to exist today, were minted in 1793. They're
worth an estimated $275, 000 each. You're probably more likely
to come across a 1943 penny in grandpa's money jar. If it is
a real copper penny, you'll be holding a cool $80,000.
Eighty thousand bucks for a 1943 penny? What gives? You see,
1943 was a special year in that the U.S. was running short of
copper for the war effort and minted pennies out of steel for
that year only. But, while they were switching over the equipment
at the mint, about 40 or so pennies were struck on copper blanks
that had been left in the hoppers of the machines. So, if you
find a 1943 copper penny, go ahead and yell "jackpot!"
But before you count your riches, better see if that penny will
stick to a refrigerator magnet. Real copper won't but a fake
copper plated steel one will.
Oh, yes. I promised an answer for the penny quiz. How many
pennies have been minted? Well, you've demanded change from your
government and they've obliged with over 300 billion one-cent
coins since 1787. Thirty million new ones are added each day,
which accounts for two-thirds of all coins produced by the U.
S. Mint. Unlike dollar bills, which seem to disintegrate just
sitting in your wallet, an average penny lasts for 25 years.
Sometime during those 25 years, the little cents may well become
"pennies from heaven" for the many charities that collect
and turn them into thousands and millions of dollars in good
works. So, brother, can you spare a penny or two.
Note: Image of penny is courtesy of the U.S. Mint.
Books of Interest:
One-Minute Coin Expert by Scott A. Travers. One of
the most knowledgeable and influential coin dealers in the world
will teach you how to turn your pocket change into dollars. Do
you have a 1995 Lincoln head penny with doubled letters in your
pocket? It could be worth as much as $100! Learn how to take
care of your treasure coins and make sure you buy and sell at
the best price.
Striking Impressions; A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S.
Coins by Robert R. Van Ryzin. Pictures and descriptions of
all regular issue U.S. coins from 1792 thru 1992.
Edmund's United States Coin Prices 1999 by Edmunds
Publications. An excellent reference for both novice and expert