That, I think, lies at the heart of why we won’t be seeing the penny vanish anytime soon. It’s not just a coin. It’s a symbol. It may be small, but in many ways it’s the distilled quintessence of America, the most basic building block of our enormous economic might. It’s emblematic of American frugality and financial smarts. And Weller cites substantial percentages of public support, “consistently high 60s, mid 70s,” for keeping it around. “Americans are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for,” he says. “Americans are skeptical. Unless there’s a perceived reason to change, a lot of these ideas are going to be rejected. There’s not a compelling reason to get rid of the penny.”
If nothing else, the penny has certainly made its mark on the lexicon in its 12-century existence. (The history books — okay, Wikipedia — date its beginnings to around 785, when a silver coin was introduced to the English midlands by King Offa of Mercia.)
It’s in a bazillion clichés: a penny saved is a penny earned; penny for your thoughts; take a penny, leave a penny; pretty penny; lucky penny; threepenny; catchpenny; tenpenny nail; penny pincher; penny candy; penny ante; penny stock; penny arcade; pennywise; pennyroyal, and pennyweight.
What’s the nickel ever given us except those stupid mooks in Nickelback?
Maybe it’s this ineffable quality, a feeling of historical permanence — perhaps of faded glory? — that makes so many people want the little guy to stick around for a while longer. It’s been a part of our lives forever; what would we be like without it?
Richard E. Barber is president of Penny Lovers of America (PLA). He is not funded in any way by the zinc industry. He simply loves the penny — sometimes more than even he can explain.
When the New Jersey philanthropist, now 67, was three or four years old, he swallowed five pennies, one after another. That would be easy to ascribe to the actions of a curious toddler if it weren’t for the night, 42 years later, when Barber was awoken at 2 am by “the Hand of God” and mystically compelled to write the words A PENNY SPEAKS. Which in turn led to the “burning desire to unite . . . non-productive, abused and seemingly worthless pennies to make positive contributions to society and improve the conditions and the quality of life for our people.”
Yes, he says, it may sound strange but, in some regards, “I see this as a divine calling.” Since that night in 1984, Barber has raised thousands of dollars for at-need kids through his Penny Lovers National Scholarship Fund. Along the way, he’s gotten people like Colin Powell and the late Ozzie Smith to help his cause. In a video on the PLA site, Smith reads a stirring Martin Luther King–esque peroration: “Give the Penny Lovers of America your isolated, abused and trampled on, lonely and hidden pennies yearning to be loved and useful. . . . The answer is in unity, for in unity there is strength, and through strength there can be great and significant achievements. Therefore, pennies of the world, let us unite and we will become a powerful and creative economic force!”