National One Cent Day: The Long History (and Murky Future) of the U.S. Penny
Pennies pre-date the U.S., dating as far back as Anglo-Saxon Britain, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that they’ll be around for much longer.
Did you know that today is National One Cent Day? It’s true! And yes, we know today is also April Fools Day, but we swear we’re not making this up! Why would we?! As an April Fools joke, making up a fake national holiday for the U.S. penny would be unspeakably lame!
In fact, rather than come up with some sort of prank post, we decided to play things straight and use this opportunity to share a little bit of the history behind the U.S. penny. Are you wondering why this holiday is called “One Cent Day” instead of “Penny Day?” That seems a little weird, right? Well, read on to find out why!
Pennies pre-date the U.S.
Coins have been around for a long time. Like, a long time: Almost 3,000 years. And while pennies don’t go back quite that long, they have been around for a lot longer than the U.S. In fact, the English word “penny”—as well as other derivations like “pfennig” in German or “penning” in Swedish—used to simply denote any kind of coin, not a specific type.
But in 790 A.D., the Anglo-Saxon King Offa introduced the first official English penny. While we associate modern pennies’ distinctive reddish look with the copper used to mint them, Offa’s pennies were made entirely of silver.
As the English currency system evolved throughout the centuries, pennies remained near the bottom, above only half-cent pieces, also known as “ha’ pennies”. In the English system, 12 pennies made up a “shilling,” with 20 shillings in a pound. It wasn’t until 1971 that the English switched over to a “decimal” system, with 100 pennies in a pound—ditching shillings altogether.
The English penny proved to be a very popular coin. That’s why it’s still around today! Even once the United States had won their war of independence from Great Britain in 1781, they couldn’t bear to part with their beloved pennies.
One cent, indivisible.
Well, sort of. Here’s the thing: American pennies aren’t actually called pennies. Or rather, they’re not “officially” called. Officially, they are one-cent coins. But try arguing that the next time you’re having a night out with your friends. U.S. one-cent coins are definitely pennies.
The first American penny was minted in 1787, six years after the end of the American Revolution. These pennies were known as Fugio Coppers, and they were 100 percent copper—some of which was contributed by Paul Revere. himself. Even though Fugio Coppers were issued by the U.S. government, they were struck by a private mint.
Fugio Coppers are often credited to Ben Franklin—which seems pretty par for the course during that period of American history–and they were sometimes referred to as the “Franklin Cent.” Franklin is also credited with the famous phrase, “a penny saved is a penny earned.”
In 1793, the U.S. Mint struck its first one-cent coins, issuing 11,000 of them on March 1st of that year. Like their Franklinite predecessors, these coins were also 100 percent copper. They were also huge—approximately the size of a modern half-dollar.
As time has progressed, the ratio of copper to other metals present in pennies has declined. Since 1982, U.S. pennies are only 2.5 copper. (Weirdly enough, dimes, nickels, and quarters are almost entirely copper.) In 1815, no pennies were minted at all due to a copper shortage produced by the War of 1812.
Other pennies were minted by the U.S. over the ensuing decades, including the “Indian” cent, minted in 1959, which was primarily used to pay Union Soldiers during the Civil War. Oh, and speaking of the Civil War …
Enter the Lincoln penny.
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to do something special to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. So he introduced the Lincoln penny featuring the president’s likeness.
The Lincoln cent was actually the first U.S. coin to feature the likeness of a real person. All previous coins had featured portrayals of the mythical figure “Liberty” or other such idealized portraits. Lincoln’s visage was captured by sculptor Victor David Brenner.
While there was a strong public sentiment against using portraits of real people on American coinage, the Lincoln penny was a massive success. (People really love Abraham Lincoln.) The coin was so popular, in fact, that it has simply become the U.S. one-cent piece.
Lincoln Pennies were originally 95 percent copper. During World War II, these pennies had to be made using materials other than copper, as those metals were needed for the war effort.
The resulting war-time pennies were made of steel, coated in a thin layer of zinc. They bore a striking resemblance to dimes and had a tendency to rust and deteriorate over time. As a result, they were not popular.
Are pennies going extinct?
In 1980, U.S. military bases stopped using pennies altogether. The cost of keeping the coins in circulation overseas was simply too great. All on-base transactions were simply rounded up or down to the nearest five-cent increment.
This brings us to a factoid that you’ve probably heard before but that bears repeating: The U.S. one-cent piece costs more to produce than it’s actually worth. That’s right! A one-cent penny costs 1.8 cents to make.
And what’s more, the low-value for these coins means that people don’t really use them. So the U.S. Mint has to keep producing more and more of them to keep the penny in circulation. By some estimates, the country’s penny-related losses will top one billion dollars over the next decade.
So should we just call the penny kaput? Many folks think so. In 2017, Arizona Senator John McCain even introduced the COINS Act, which would have eliminated one-cent coins altogether. Pennies may pre-date American, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that they’ll outlast it.
If you enjoyed this post, check out these other articles from OppLoans:
- The Secret Financial History of Voting
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- Love and Money: A Brief History of Dowries
- Is There a Secret Money Lesson Hidden In “The Wizard of Oz?”