At Black Mountain Coins we have debated an issue that on the surface may seem of little consequence but I can assure you it has lasting relevance to the hobby we all hold so dear. I am referring to the decision to use the conventionally accepted term “penny” versus the technically correct term “cent.” That’s right, we are throwing in the towel and after much deliberation have chosen to call them pennies going forward. Please indulge us this one guilty pleasure without correcting our numismatic faux pas. This transition will be particularly difficult for Dan who has been correcting collectors for this same slip for some time now.
Look around and you will see the prevalent name ‘penny’ everywhere. At home you slip into your favorite penny-loafers. Day traders deal in penny stocks. A bygone era remembers penny arcades and penny candy, a concept now extinct thanks to inflationary pressures. At the corner store you may find a Have-A-Penny/Take-A-Penny dish on the counter. A roll of fifty cents goes by the name penny roll (and more often than not the paper wrapper reads PENNIES)
Well that is all fine. Here is the cincher: we are a web-based business that sells coins and we recently discovered that the word ‘penny’ is a much more common keyword search than ‘cent.’ This was eye opening but it really shouldn’t be. From the examples listed above you can see that the penny has crept into every corner of pop culture. It is almost unconsciously preferred to the numismatically correct alternative.
A bit of history, the term penny is a decidedly British measure used throughout the realm. The proper denomination is pence and the derivatives thereof such as halfpence. The abbreviation is a lower-case ‘p’ (sometimes spoken as the same) but in the pre-decimalization era the abbreviation was a lower-case ‘d.’ This was adopted from the Roman ‘denarius.’
U.S. collectors have incorporated this English-born misnomer since the first days of penny boards. It is interesting to note that advanced early copper collectors have been throwing the term around for some time. Dr. Sheldon’s landmark book Penny Whimsy was first published in 1958 and the bimonthly periodical Penny-Wise is still in circulation to this day. I must say that I have even overheard these same enthusiasts talking about their latest Big Penny (read: Large Cent) discovery. Ed. Note: This is somewhat tongue in cheek I feel certain.
At least one coin collector, Hollywood actress and director Penny Marshall, can directly attribute her interest in coins to her given name. The full story goes that her first name came as a statement of purpose for her brothers, who were saving their pennies for a pony, but got a baby sister instead.” Surely, you knew that Laverne De Fazio collected coins (“….... and don't call me Shirley” – apologies for this writer’s homage paid to Airplane the movie)
But don’t think for a minute that the voyage has been smooth sailing for our dear penny. Since 1793 she has undergone many face-lifts and even today our diminutive friend faces legislation to do away with her altogether! Seigniorage can be described as the difference between what a coin costs to produce and the face value it carries – put differently, it is the mint’s profit. Well, it probably comes as no surprise that producing pennies is a losing proposition for our mint. It currently costs 1.7 cents to produce one zinc penny.
Another argument is that nothing can be purchased with this minuscule currency unit any longer. Other countries that have done away with the one-cent equivalent have done just fine rounding purchases to the nearest nickel. Heck, the buying power is so diminished for the lowly penny that most Americans will no longer stop to pick up a single penny lying on the ground. And why would they? If you break stride to pick up a penny and it delays you longer than six seconds then your reward for time invested is barely on par with the federal minimum wage.
Diminished purchasing power aside, I would submit that this denomination has paid its dues as a time tested coin that should remain. In 1909 the groundbreaking Lincoln Cent became the first U.S. coin to feature a former President, or for that matter any mortal; previous to then Liberty represented by an allegorical female personification was a central device. Also, about half of the coins produced by the U.S. Mint since the late eighteenth century have been pennies. These 290 billion pennies laid flat with edges touching would circle the earth 137 times!
In closing, we are glad to report to our customers that we are now embracing the term penny and we want to see this little workhorse of a coin continue to be produced into the future. One original concept for our nation’s early copper coinage was the Fugio Cent, inspired by none other than Benjamin Franklin. Fugio means literally, ‘I Fly,’ and it refers to the passage of time. Our desire is that the noble penny is allowed to circulate through the hands of future generations, and in some small way carry out the intentions of Franklin. Call it what you will, cent or penny, but consider all of this next time you are sorting your change.
A "New Haven" restrike of Benjamin Franklin's 1787 "Fugio" Cent.