The plight of the lowly penny


When I went to pay for my gas at the convenience store last week, the little tray at the cashier stations with the sign “Leave a penny, take a penny” was so full it almost overflowed. When I mentioned it to the clerk, he said he wasn’t surprised. “It’s always like that,” was all he said, with a shrug, as he turned to help another customer.

The full tray made me think that maybe the idea that is floated periodically that there isn’t a need for pennies might just have some merit. Obviously lots of people who frequented this store didn’t want to carry the lowly penny.

Yesterday was One Cent Day, and of course also April Fool’s Day. Is there some connection there?

One Cent Day is dedicated to the history and origins of the one cent coin. I read that the one cent coin has been in circulation in the U.S. since 1793. It wasn’t until 1909, though, that the penny first looked like it does today. Before that, it featured a Native American in traditional head dress.

President Theodore Roosevelt chose the likeness of President Abraham Lincoln for the face of the penny. Before that, there had never been the face of an actual person on any U.S. currency. Abe was the first in a long line of the appearance of people, primarily past presidents, who appear on all sorts of American coinage. Interestingly, although our coins have had numerous changes over the years, the only coin that has always had the same president on its face is the penny.

One thing that has changed about the penny over the years is the interest that the public has in it. I read that when it was first released, the public wanted them so much that the Treasury Department had to limit the number available. In just a few days, the simple little one-cent coin was going for as much as 25 cents. Eventually that dropped to five cents before the coin settled into circulation.

And now we are largely so disinterested in the penny that we discard them in the tray at the cash register. We use them to pay sales tax on our retail purchases. Maybe we give them to a child for a little jingle in their pocket. Do we bother to pick one up that we may come across lying on a sidewalk?

I remember buying Chum Gum, three sticks in a package, for a penny at the corner café when I was growing up. It was meant to share.

Now that’s about the best use of a penny I can remember.