Here in the digital age, the ubiquitous penny, so much a part of our
lives, is still hanging in. It seems to exist on its own despite the
new world of bits and pieces people now prefer. Here in On The
Margins, our Gene Farinet gives us his unique take on the penny, its
past, present and its possible future.
It ‘s no surprise to hear that Honest Abe is still on life support.
The Lincoln penny has been in ill health for some time, a victim of
inflated metal prices, and the expense of putting it into
Bogged down in the loss column, the venerable coin, at one time,
produced a profit for the Treasury of about $40 million a year.
But it now costs 1.4 cents a penny, to make a penny.
Is the bell tolling?
Certainly this is not a “Top Ten” national issue, or even concern,
but I find it a bit unsettling. After all, for more than two
centuries, the respected penny has been a reassuring symbol that
Americans were hesitant to forsake. A key part of our social and
Like many others, I kind of laughed off the news 17 years ago when
the idea of a penniless society first surfaced in Congress by
rounding off all purchases to the nearest nickel. We said: you gotta
Nor were any red flags raised when two special interest groups
sprung up in the 1990’s, the pro-penny Americans for Common Cents.
And on the other side of the coin, Citizens for Retiring the Penny..
In recent years, debate was pushed up a notch when a U.S.
Congressman introduced legislation in 2001 to actually stop
production of pennies.
To gauge by recent polls, public opinion is divided. According to
Gallup, two-thirds of Americans want to keep the penny in
circulation. A CNN poll, however, found only 38% supportive.
It’s had a long currency life, and been a coin collectors’ delight,
with more than 300 billion pennies in a parade of 11 different
designs since its 1787 pedigree.
One of its most glorious days was a modern auction at which 1792
prototype reportedly went for $437,000.
(Photo © Coinstar)
And then, there’s Ed Knowles, an Alabama service station owner, who
saved pennies for 38 years, in canvas bags, jars and 55-gallon drums
in his garage. With the help of an armored truck, he finally cashed
in his four-and-a-half ton mother lode last fall.
For Ed, it made a lot of sense, $13, 084 dollars and 59 cents.
Not so long ago, yesteryear meant finding a “lucky penny” on the
street, piggy banks, penny candy, a penny arcade, bubble gum
machines, your weight, your fortune, one cent. It was oh so 1936….
in popular song:
“When you hear it thunder, Don’t run under a tree, There’ll be
pennies from heaven for you and me.”
But at some point, fueled by prosperity, the “lucky penny”
began to take on tarnish. There were checks, then charge cards, and
folks began to write off the penny as “annoying” fit only for jars
or the bottom of drawers. Others got agitated fishing for pennies
when making purchases. Pockets and coin purses were weighted down..
Checkout lines could be held up, while the cashier unwrapped new
Pretty soon, a penny on the sidewalk didn’t get a second look and
people rarely stopped to look for a dropped penny once it rolled out
What happens now?
In 2009, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s image being placed on
the penny, there’s proposed legislation to completely redesign it,
as part of a presidential coin act passed last year. Keeping
Lincoln, of course.
Still, to me, it’s a coin standing on edge, nobody can be sure which
way it’s eventually going to fall.
After all, they say the sales tax was devised to prevent the penny
from becoming obsolete.
Gene Farinet, an award winning veteran newsman, spent much of his long
career at NBC News as a writer and producer working with Frank McGee,
Ed Newman, John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw, covering space, politics
and special projects everywhere in the world.