I have this thing about pennies. I don’t know where my fascination with these little coins started. Maybe from my dad telling us to “save your pennies” every time we suggested a trip we wanted to take or a gadget we wanted to try. Something about them has always made me smile.
On one hand, who even uses coins anymore, let alone the smallest and practically useless one cent? Is there anyone out there who likes pennies? Seriously. I mean, do I understand why they’re necessary? Yes. But do I want them weighing down my wallet and lining the bottom of my kitchen junk drawer? Of course not.
On the other hand, we have so many cultural myths and superstitions about how pennies bring good luck. We put them in our shoes, throw them into fountains, search for heads-up pennies on the sidewalk, all for the tiniest bit of prosperity.
Did you know that people have been trying to get rid of the penny for several years?
To date, there have been three bills proposed in congress to eliminate the penny: The Price Rounding Act of 1989 which proposed rounding cash transactions to the nearest nickel, the Legal Tender Modernization Act of 2001, and the 2006 Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN), all introduced by penny-killer enthusiast, former Congressman Jim Kolbe (R-AZ). Already, they’ve been all but phased out by the U.S. Military who round prices of goods sold on their bases.
While it seems like such a trivial matter to be worrying about, there are actually a whole host of pretty legitimate reasons to get rid of our smallest and most useless coin. To start with, as of 2013 the cost of production for a single one cent coin is 1.8 cents. Pennies are usually not accepted in machines, can’t be used in bulk for purchases, and as a result most go out of circulation — sitting at the bottom of your glove compartment, or thrown into the sock drawer, probably to remain forever.
Basically, there’s nothing good about pennies. Except that apparently they’re super lucky.
I love this juxtaposition between the everyday usage and the mythos of pennies. Isn’t it interesting how, as a child, your day was made by finding a shiny heads-up penny in the grocery store, but as an adult, it’s a pain to collect your change. While I was in college, I had an idea to play on this dichotomy as part of a public art project. I am often in the habit of having ridiculous and silly ideas, and I was especially prone to acting on the silliest of them while I was in college.
The idea was to collect as many pennies as possible and then leave them all around campus – heads up of course – with posters hanging nearby. “Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck.” I thought it would be a fun way to spread some luck and cheer during final exams. I thought it would be funny to see trails of pennies leading from the library or dining halls. I thought it would be an interesting human experiment to see who would pick them up, and what people would say about it.
So over three and a half semesters, I collected pennies. I set them aside after doing my grocery shopping. I raided my parents sock drawer. I got my roommates to do the same. I would spontaneously ask my friends to empty out their wallets and pockets. I painstakingly counted and sorted them, weeding out all the Canadian and UK pennies and searching for those minted in my birth year. All in the name of ART!
The weekend we planned to finally go out and spread the wealth, it snowed. After postponing, I never managed to drum up enough enthusiasm or manpower to get it done before graduation.
I still have all the pennies though. Packed in six spaghetti sauce jars in my basement. I don’t know what I will do with them. In my estimation, I have over $50 in pennies. I can’t spend them because so many of them were donated; it wouldn’t be right. Maybe I will revamp my project idea and give it another go post-college. Maybe they will stay in the jars forever as a reminder of the distance between reality and folklore. Maybe I will mail them back to the U.S. Mint to help pay off the national debt.
There’s one verse of that familiar poem about finding pennies that I didn’t know until my small obsession started. It goes, “Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck. Give that penny to a friend. Then your luck will never end.” ❂
Post Script: This week, I read this article about a man who recently cashed in on 45 years of diligently saving pennies. “‘If I was at someone’s house and I found a penny, I would pick it up and I would keep it,’ he said. ‘I will always tell the person that if it was a quarter, I would give it back, but since it is a penny, I’m keeping it.'” He is basically my new hero.