My Love For An Anachronism



Editor's note: Noble Collins' column runs in The Rim Review, every other Wednesday.

I am not a particularly frugal person, but I pick up pennies -- old ones, new ones, heads or tails, lying on the ground or in the street.

I can't just leave them there to an unknown fate.

Perhaps this is some type of mild compulsion, but I like to think of it in more practical terms. I help keep the environment clean, and I never lack pennies. I always have the correct change and don't get pennies back when I make a purchase.

I pre-empt the process. The fact that I still have to carry some around seems moot and confusing to my logic. So, I don't think about it much.

Who knows? Maybe they do bring good luck.

There is a movement underway to eliminate the one-cent coin. It costs the U.S. Treasury more to stamp them out, distribute them and collect old ones than the poor things are worth. They are more symbolic than valuable anyway.

They do, however, serve as tax collectors.

Taxes are extracted from the public in many guises. We are like the frog that is first placed in cold water, but gradually the temperature is raised until the frog boils. He never notices his fate until it is too late.

Taxes are like that. Property taxes, in particular, are noxious.

They are usually calculated in Mils (fractions of dollars), which can seem completely innocent little increments until one adds up its total effect.

Sales taxes are only slightly more visible. They rise slowly, pennies at a time. Boiling water only rises by degrees at a time, you will recall.

So, the penny is kept around -- a living anachronism.

When I was a boy, (prosaic, isn't it?) a penny actually had definite worth.

The term "penny candy" was common and had meaning. A "penny's worth" could actually buy something of value, and many items were priced in "cents."

Early vending machines accepted pennies, especially scales for weighing in public places. People seemed far less sensitive about their weight in those days. Penny bubble gum was popular until recent times.

Once in a while, you might still hear someone say, "A penny for your thoughts." They mean no disrespect. It's a benign conversation starter. Just last week, I heard "Pennies from Heaven" played over a local radio station. It's a song.

None of this justifies my mild obsession for picking up stray pennies.

I also pick up nickels, dimes and quarters, and I will risk being hit in traffic if I notice a bill of any denomination lying casually on the pavement. It is an old habit and almost impossible to break. It comes from never totally embracing poverty.

If only I had also applied the laws of savings and compound interest, I would have been rid of the compulsion years ago. It's difficult to notice a Lincoln penny lying in the street from the rear seat of a Lincoln automobile. But that's another story.

Officially, pennies don't exist. Truth be told, the U.S. Treasury calls these little gems, "One-Cent Pieces."

The term penny is related to the British pence, which is 1/100 of a pound.

The original one-cent piece was a rather large coin. At its first official minting, the penny's declared value was 1/100 of a dollar.

The Flying Eagle was the first small-sized cent coin minted in the United States, replacing the earlier large cent.

In 1859, the U.S. government changed the design to one with an Indian head on one side. They were produced for 50 years, until 1909, when the Lincoln design replaced it.

The Indian head design was actually a stylized "Liberty" head, wearing an Indian headdress.

Early "pennies" were made from pure copper, and they shone red under certain light conditions, which is where we get the term, "red cent." This is usually a derogative term -- "not worth a red cent."

During World War II, they were made from lead. Today, the ingredients are mostly zinc with a copper coating.

The One Dollar Coin Act of 2005 requires that the cent's reverse be redesigned in 2009. This will result in the mintage of four different coins showing scenes from Abraham Lincoln's life in honor of the bicentennial of his birth. Perhaps this will make them more appealing to collectors.

I don't believe it will make me more discriminating when picking them up, however. I prefer heads, but whatever constitutes tails will still attract me, I'm sure.

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