PLYMOUTH, Mass. — In this village settled by thrifty Pilgrims, you can still buy penny candy for a penny, but tourist Alan Ferguson doubts he’ll be able to dig any 1-cent pieces out of his pockets.
He rarely carries pennies because “they take up a lot of room for how much value they have.” Instead, like so many other Americans, he dumps his pennies into a bucket back home in Sarasota, Fla.
Pity the poor penny!
It packs so little value that merry kids chuck pennies into the fountain near the candy store, just to watch them splash and sink. Stray pennies turn up everywhere: in streets, cars, sofas, beaches, even landfills with the rest of the garbage.
A penny bought a loaf of bread in early America, but it’s a loafer of a coin in an age of inflation and affluence, slowly sliding into monetary obsolescence.
For the first time, the U.S. Mint has said pennies are costing more than 1 cent to make this year, thanks to higher metal prices. “The penny is going to disappear soon unless something changes in the economics of commodities,” says Robert Hoge, an expert on North American coins at The American Numismatic Society.
That very idea of spending 1.2 cents to put 1 cent into play strikes many people as “faintly ridiculous,” says Jeff Gore, of Elkton, Md., founder of a little group called Citizens for Retiring the Penny.
A hard habit to break
And yet, while its profile of Abe Lincoln marks time in the bottom of drawers and ashtrays, the penny somehow carries a reassuring symbolism that Americans hesitate to forsake.
“It’s part of their past, so they want to keep it in their future,” says Dave Harper, editor of Numismatic News.
Gallup polling has shown that two-thirds of Americans want to keep the penny coin. There’s even a pro-penny lobby called Americans for Common Cents.
The Mint’s announcement is a milestone, though, because coins have historically cost less to produce than the face value paid by receiving banks. They are moneymakers for the government.
U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona wants to keep it that way. But when he asked Congress to phase out the penny five years ago he failed; he intends to try again this year. If he fails again, he joked recently, he may open a business melting down pennies to resell the metal.
For many, a ‘nuisance coin’
The idea of a penniless society began to gain currency in 1989 with a bill in Congress to round off purchases to the nearest nickel. It was dropped, but the General Accounting Office in a 1996 report unceremoniously acknowledged that some people consider the penny a “nuisance coin.”
In 2002, Gallup polling found that 58 percent of Americans stash pennies in piggy banks, jars, drawers and the like, instead of spending them like other coins. Some people eventually redeem them at banks or coin-counting machines, but 2 percent admit to just plain throwing pennies out!
“Today it’s a joke. It’s outlived its usefulness,” says Tony Terranova, a New York City coin dealer who paid $437,000 for a 1792 penny prototype in what is believed to be the denomination’s highest auction price.
“Most people find them annoying when they get them in change,” he adds. “I’ve seen people get pennies in change and actually throw them on the floor.”
Four decades, $13,000 (and change)
Not Edmond Knowles, of Flomaton, Ala. He hoarded pennies for nearly four decades as a hobby. He ended up with more than 1.3 million of them — 4.5 tons — in several drums in his garage. His bank refused to take them all at once, but he finally found a coin-counting company, Coinstar, that wanted the publicity.
In the biggest known penny cash-in ever, they sent an armored truck last year, loaded his pennies, and then watched helplessly as it sank into the mud in his yard. They needed a tow truck to redeem it. “I still got a few ruts in the yard,” says Knowles.
His years of collecting brought him about $1 a day — $13,084.59 in all.
A penny saved was a penny earned for Knowles, but he took another lesson from the experience, too: “I don’t save pennies anymore. It’s too big a problem getting rid of them.”
Another problem: deciding what to make the penny from. Copper, bronze and zinc have been used, even steel in 1943 when copper was desperately needed for the World War II effort. In 1982, zinc replaced most of the penny’s copper to save money, but rising zinc prices are now bedeviling the penny again.
“I’m very surprised they haven’t gone to plastic,” muses Bill Johnson, a wheat-penny collector who owns the Plimoth Candy Co. (It uses an old spelling of Plymouth.)
She is carrying no pennies because her sons have taken them for their old-fashioned piggy banks, which automatically flip coins inside. Her 2-year-old, she says, “just loves pushing the button.”
Others have their own reasons for valuing the humble coin, which borrowed its colloquial name from British currency. The “cent” — meaning 1 percent of a dollar — has been struck every year except 1815, when the United States ran out of British-made penny blanks in the wake of the War of 1812.
“It’s part of the fabric of American culture,” says David Early, a spokesman for the government’s Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
Redesign in the works
The penny took on the profile of President Lincoln, beloved as the Union’s savior during the Civil War, on the centennial of his birth in 1909. The first ones carried ears of wheat on the tails side, but the Lincoln memorial has replaced those. Four new tails designs with themes from Lincoln’s life are planned for 2009, with a fifth permanent one afterward to summarize his legacy.
This redesign, the first major one since 1959, has heartened penny lovers.
Those who want to keep the penny coin include small merchants who prefer cash transactions, contractors who help supply pennies, and consumer advocates who fear rounding up of purchases.
“We think the penny is important as a hedge to inflation,” says director Mark Weller of Americans for Common Cents. “Any time you have more accurate pricing, consumers benefit.”
Joining with the lobby, the wireless network Virgin Mobile USA recently launched a save-the-penny campaign. Its penny truck will travel cross-country to gather pennies for charity.
Is the nickel next?
Scores of charities esteem the penny, which many Americans donate without a second thought. Like shouts in a playground, pennies can multiply quickly.
“People don’t like carrying them around, so we dump them into the nearest bowl,” says Teddy Gross, who founded the Penny Harvest charity drive in New York City schools. “By the end of any given year, most Americans have got a stash of capital which is practically useless, but it’s within easy reach of a young person.”
Last year, his children raked in 55 million pennies, which had to be redeemed with help from the Brinks security company. They also bagged about 200,000 spare nickels.
By the way, the Mint says nickels are also costing more to produce than they’re worth. Pity the poor nickel?
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