It is tiny: a piece of copper-plated zinc only 19 millimeters in diameter and 1.5 millimeters thick, weighing just two and a half grams.
It might gleam smartly. It might be green with oxidation. Or it could be caked in a decade’s worth of tar-black grime, imparted incrementally by thousands of fingers as it’s passed from clanging cash register to jangling pocket to piggy bank to bank vault to bureau drawer to gum-sticky sidewalk to bottomless purse to kitchen-counter jam jar to burbling fountain to trout pond — and sometimes back again over the course of perhaps 50 years or more. There are as many as 200 billion of them out there right now, doing what they do.
A portrait of Abraham Lincoln is engraved on the obverse: bearded, bow-tied, slightly gaunt, looking rightward with a wry and saintly smile, the words IN GOD WE TRUST arcing gracefully over his head. On the reverse is a surprisingly detailed rendering of the Lincoln Memorial’s stately colonnades, crowned with the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM” and declaring beneath, in capital letters, almost proudly: ONE CENT.
It is the penny. And it is virtually worthless.
Depending, of course, on how many of them you have.
And, depending on whom you ask.
Many of us cannot stand the things. They proliferate with each day of our existence, it seems, tossed wearily into jars or jugs or drawers at evening’s homecoming or left lazily on store counters; sometimes they’re even thrown away. One poll claims that more than a quarter of all American men (though just 16 percent of women) wouldn’t even bother to pick up this small piece of free money off the ground. Nearly a third of Americans want to eliminate the penny entirely. Scores of articles and editorials have endorsed the idea, and at least one US congressman has tried twice to make it happen.
Then there are those who value the penny perhaps more than any other coin. They see it as virtuous. A penny saved is a penny earned. If you’ve got a hundred of ’em, you’ve got a buck, they say, and if you’ve got a hundred of them, well, then you’re in business. Some look at the penny and see a symbol of the marginalized and the downtrodden, and they recognize the real-world ways that pennies, when pooled together in great numbers, can help the marginalized and downtrodden better themselves. Some collect them. Some make art out of them. Some wage sweeping public-relations campaigns to protect them because they have substantial financial self-interest in doing so.
Whatever their motivations, this much is certain: the penny may be tiny, and it may be worth next to nothing. But it has an awful lot of people talking about it in fairly histrionic terms. “Ban the penny,” cries one. “Can nobody rid America of this copper-coated scourge?” On the other side of the aisle, the passions run just as high: “Now is the time for all Americans to come to the aid of the penny.” Meanwhile, the things keep piling up.
We've killed money before
In 1787, the first one-cent coin was minted in America. It was the first piece of currency to be authorized by the young nation. Six years later, the United States also began minting half-penny coins.