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“Find a penny, pick it up; all day long you’ll have good luck.” Some say the origin of this superstition comes from long, long ago when metals were believed to protect against harmful spirits. Others say when metal coins were first used as currency, only the very wealthy had any, suggesting the good fortune of the prosperous was passed to the finder along with the lost penny.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023 is National Lucky Penny Day

The official term for the American penny is one-cent piece. It was one of the first coins made by the U.S. Mint. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, the Coinage Act of 1792 mandated that American coins had to include an “impression emblematic of Liberty, ” a figure from Roman mythology who was a symbol of America seen in colonial times.

Her flowing hair was meant to symbolize liberty but critics said it looked messy

It was larger than the current penny and made entirely of copper. The Liberty Penny was issued for more than 60 years, then followed by several new designs that led up to the well-known Indian Head penny that was issued for the next 50 years. 

In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt introduced a new one-cent piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth

Created by Victor David Brenner, the image is still used on today’s penny. For 50 years, the reverse featured two sheaves of wheat. These “wheatback pennies” are still sought by collectors. The most famous of these is the 1909 S VDB.

For the next 50 years, the back had an image of the Lincoln Memorial 

The current penny was introduced in 2010. The United States Mint says the shield on the back of today’s one-cent piece represents Lincoln’s preservation of the Union. Some say it looks more like a commemorative coin from an insurance company.

Vital statistics

For 20 years beginning in 1837, the penny’s copper content was 95%. For the next 100 years, it dropped to 88% before returning to 95% copper again in 1962. 

In 1943, copper was needed to fight the wars against the Germans and the Japanese, so U.S. pennies were made of steel coated with zinc. A few copper pennies were struck by mistake, instantly becoming collectibles.

The current penny is 97.5% zinc, with a thin copper coating. It is 19.05 mm (¾ of an inch) in diameter, 1.52 mm (.059 inches) thick, and weighs 2.5 grams. Wags call these pennies Zincolns.

Heads or tails?

Numismatists (students of coins and coinage) refer to heads as the obverse and tails as the reverse. When we are unable to make heads or tails of something, we are admitting we don’t understand it, even if we examine every aspect of it from top to bottom, head to tail.

Most of the terms and idioms that involve pennies emphasize frugality
  • Penny-ante: Cheap, trivial, and not worth the bother.
  • Penny-pincher: A miser, cheapskate, skinflint, tightwad, scrooge.
  • Penny-wise and pound-foolish: Being stingy with small sums of money while being reckless with large sums (the pound refers to British currency). Folksy philosopher Will Rogers (“All I know is what I read in the papers”) explained it this way: “Too many people buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”
Make mine a double

Here’s the classic illustration you’ve seen if you’ve taken classes in algebra, statistics, or economics. If you were given a penny on day one, two cents on day two, four on day three and the amount doubled every day just like that, by the end of a week, you’d have accumulated 64¢. After two weeks, you’d have collected $1.64. If you don’t know much about exponential growth, you might be surprised to find that after three weeks, you’d have more than $10,000. The total for a 30-day month? Take at look at the chart*.

  • The penny costs more to manufacture than its metals are worth (the word for this is seigniorage). So does the nickel. Many sources agree the U.S. Mint loses $100 million on pennies and nickels each year.
  • One tradition from Victorian days has brides putting pennies in their shoes for good luck. Some say it should be the left shoe.
  • A silversmith named Paul Revere (yes, the April 18, 1775 night rider) owned a metals company that supplied the U.S. Mint with rolled copper for the production of early pennies.
  • U.S. military bases overseas have eliminated the penny, rounding all transactions to the nearest nickel. Three out of four Americans want to keep the penny, knowing that without it, costs will be rounded up. Australia, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, and New Zealand have all said the heck with it.
  • Are you one of the sharp-eyed who noticed that the penny is the only U.S. coin where the president faces to the right?
*The chart


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