History In The Headlines

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Penny

By Jennie Cohen
Canada will remove its pennies from circulation this year, following in the footsteps of Australia, Sweden and several other countries, finance minister Jim Flaherty announced yesterday. Is the humble coin’s American cousin next in line to lose its currency? As various groups weigh both sides of the debate, explore the history of the penny in the United States and beyond.

Pennies

(Credit: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

1. The word “penny” and its variations across Europe—including the German “pfennig” and the Swedish “penning”—originally denoted any sort of coin or money, not just a small denomination.

2. Offa, an Anglo-Saxon king, introduced the first English coin known as the penny around 790 A.D.; it was made entirely of silver. Today’s British pennies (called “pence” when referring to a quantity of money) are worth one hundredth of a pound and minted in copper-plated steel.

Pennies

The obverse of the first official U.S. penny, reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin.

3. The official term for the American penny is “one-cent piece.” However, when the U.S. Mint struck its first one-cent coins—then the size of today’s half-dollars and 100-percent copper—in 1793, Americans continued to use the British term out of habit.

4. Benjamin Franklin reportedly designed the first American penny in 1787. Known as the Fugio cent, it bears the image of a sun and sundial above the message “Mind Your Business.” A chain with 13 links, each representing one of the original colonies, encircles the motto “We Are One” on the reverse.

5. Along with the first U.S. penny’s design, the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Visitors to the founding father’s grave in Philadelphia traditionally leave one-cent pieces there for good luck.

6. The copper content of U.S. pennies has declined over the years due to rising prices. The expensive metal makes up just 2.5 percent of one-cent pieces minted in 1982 or later; nickels, dimes and quarters, on the other hand, are mainly composed of copper. Still, today’s pennies cost more than their face value—an estimated 1.8 cents each—to produce.

Pennies

The reverse of the Canadian penny, which according to officials will soon be removed from circulation.

7. In 1909, Teddy Roosevelt introduced the Lincoln cent to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the 16th U.S. president’s birth. At the time, it was the first American coin to feature the likeness of an actual person (as opposed to the personifications of “liberty” appearing on earlier designs). Fifty years later the Lincoln Memorial was added to the penny’s reverse, complete with a tiny representation of the statue within.

8. The image of Abraham Lincoln on today’s American pennies was designed by Victor David Brenner, an acclaimed medalist who emigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1890. Born Viktoras Barnauskas, Brenner had fled his native land after being persecuted for his Jewish ancestry.

9. As copper supplies became vital to weapons manufacturing during World War II, the U.S. Mint decided to cast the 1943 penny in zinc-coated steel. Nicknamed “steelies,” these coins caused confusion because they closely resembled dimes; they also rusted and deteriorated quickly.

10. In the 1980s, U.S. military bases overseas abolished the penny and began rounding all transactions up or down to the nearest five cents. This is the system Canada plans to implement later this year.

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Categories: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Economy