Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Praise of the Penny

People who collect coins are called “numismatists.” I’m not one of them, because I realized early on that the coins we get in change aren’t very valuable, due to their condition. If you take collecting seriously, you have to pay big bucks for mint-quality coins and hold them for a very, very long time.

Nevertheless, I often examine my pocket change just out of casual curiosity. I check out any new designs and read the dates. Today, I was stunned by a penny.

I vividly remember, as a kid, finding the occasional Indian Head penny, which ceased production in 1909. I don’t ever recall finding one older than 1900, so most of the ones I found were around 40 – 50 years old.

The coin that replaced it is commonly known as the “wheat back” penny. In 1959, the back of the penny was changed to a depiction of the Lincoln Memorial. “Wheat back” pennies started to get scarce. Sometime in the mid-70’s, I started separating them from my change, tossing them into a drawer. 25 years later, they had doubled in value, so I sold them for a whopping 2 cents apiece.

Today I dumped a handful of change on a counter and spotted this “wheat back:”


When I turned it over, I was shocked to see that it was minted in 1930:


This coin, still in circulation, is 81 years old. And yet, it’s less worn than pennies half that age. It’s been around since Herbert Hoover was President. Assuming it hasn’t spent a major part of its life languishing under a sofa cushion or soaking in a wishing well, this penny has probably been handled by nearly 10,000 people.

It’s easily the oldest coin I’ve ever found. I only hope I look that good when I’m 81.

There is a movement (I prefer the term "conspiracy") dedicated to the elimination of the penny from U.S. coinage. The arguments are that it's costly and that pennies have almost no buying power. Personally, I feel that the elimination of the penny will cause an almost instantaneous form of inflation that would be tiny in scope, but make a few very wealthy people much wealthier without having to lift a finger.

I have faith that at some point, the dollar will rebound, becoming a strong currency once again. When that happens, pennies will regain value as currency. I say wait it out. I have a penny in my pocket that has been waiting for 81 years.

1 comment:

katalyst said...

I have an old tin can for my "wheat back" pennies, probably less than a dollar's worth. My oldest is 1910 (a year before my father was born), four others from the 20s, three from the 30s, alot from the 40s (four from 1946, the year I was born) and a pile from the 50s, the newest is 1958 from the Denver Mint.

These are the only coins I have collected, so to speak, except for the newly released quarters issed for each state in a nice book sleeve. Mary and I spent three years collecting them for Jon, who recently spent them all on beer or weed. Oh, well...