A penny for your thoughts...

The penny is the common name for the cent (i.e., one cent piece) used in the United States and carries with it a long list of the history of this nation. It derives its name from the British pence, and was the first currency ever authorized by the federal government. With Benjamin Franklin suggesting the original design, the first pennies in the US were created at a private mint in 1787 and were known as the Fugio cent. One of America's most famous blacksmiths, Paul Revere, supplied some of the copper for the coins minted during the 1790's. The original coins were more than five times heavier and nearly 50% larger than today's penny. Since 1787, over 300 billion ($3 billion) one cent coins with 11 different designs have been produced.

The penny is worth 1 one-hundreth (1/100) of a dollar. It is written as 1¢ or $0.01.

Composition of the Penny

1787 to 1793:     Unregulated, though assumed 100% copper
1793 to 1837*:    100% copper
1837 to 1857:     95% copper, 5% tin and zinc (100% bronze)
1857 to 1864:     88% copper and 12% nickel (which gave the coin a whitish color)
1864 to 1962:     95% copper, 5% tin and zinc
1943:             zinc coated steel (copper was saved for the war effort)
1962 to 1982**:   95% copper and 5% zinc (tin content removed)
1982 to present:  97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper (i.e., copper-plated zinc)

* Coin production taken over by the U.S. Mint. Due to a copper shortage caused by the War of 1812, no one cent coins were produced in 1815.
** Because of a coin shortage in the country, mint marks were removed from pennies from 1965-67 to help prevent collectors from hoarding so many coins. Numerous 1965 coins were even stamped with 1964 for the same reason.

Major Designs of the Penny

Fugio Cent

Dates Minted:    1793 to 1856
Obverse Image:   Sun and Sun Dial
Obverse Legend:  "Fugio" (I fly), "Mind Your Business" and the year
Reverse Image:   13 linked circles
Reverse Legend:  "We Are One" and "United States"

The first one cent pieces produced by the US are also known as Congress Coppers, Franklin Cents, or Ring Cents, and were not widely circulated. This original cent coin weighed 157.5 grains, which was equivalent to the English halfpence and the Massachusetts coppers. They were denoted as "cents" to signify that there were 100 to the Spanish milled dollar.

This large cent had numerous problems. First, only gold and silver coins were considered legal tender at this time, so numerous banks and businesses refused to accept the coin. By 1851, it was costing the U.S. Mint $1.06 to produce $1 worth of pennies. This negative seignorage was its ultimate downfall, and lead to the decrease in the percentage of copper used in the next design.

Flying Eagle Cent

Dates Minted:    1856 to 1858
Obverse Image:   Flying Eagle
Obverse Legend:  "United States of America" and the date
Reverse Image:   Wreath
Reverse Legend:  "One Cent"

This short-lived coin was proposed and minted with a high content of nickel by the Mint Director, James R. Snowden. He proposed the use of nickel because of the lobbying by Joseph Wharton (who had a near monopoly in nickel mines). Snowden ordered the minting of this design without official approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, which means that each of these coins was illegally struck and issued. Because of this, the Secret Service has the legal right to confiscate any of these pennies (though this is unlikely to occur).

Indian Cent (aka Indian Head Cent)

Dates Minted:    1859 to 1909
Obverse Image:   Indian Princess
Obverse Legend:  "United States of America" and the date
Reverse Image:   Laurel Wreath
Reverse Legend:  "One Cent"

It is said that the designer, James Barton Longacre, borrowed an Indian headdress from a visiting Indian chief, and had his daughter pose with it as he created the design. Most Indian Cents minted during the Civil War were used to pay Union soldiers.

Lincoln Cent (later known as the Wheat Penny)

Dates Minted:    1909 to 1959
Obverse Image:   Abraham Lincoln
Obverse Legend:  "In God We Trust", "Liberty", and the date
Reverse Image:   Two Wheatheads in memorial style
Reverse Legend:  "E Pluribus Unum", "One Cent", and "United States of America"

The original Lincoln Cent was minted on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Victor David Brenner was personally chosen by President Theodore Roosevelt to create the new design. In addition to our 16th president's portrait, the words In God We Trust and E Pluribus Unum were added to this denonination for the first time, though the Coinage Act of 1864 (enacted during Lincoln's term in office) had approved its use long before.

Steel Cent

Dates Minted:    1943
Obverse Image:   Abraham Lincoln
Obverse Legend:  "In God We Trust", "Liberty", and the date
Reverse Image:   Two Wheatheads in memorial style
Reverse Legend:  "E Pluribus Unum", "One Cent", and "United States of America"

Because of the critical need for copper during the war effort for WWII, production of copper pennies was halted and replaced by a temporary steel penny. This penny was coated with zinc to help rust proof it, and kept the same design as the previous Lincoln Cent.

A very limited number of copper pennies were minted in 1943, assumably because there was still copper left in the press. With only an estimated 40 copper coins in existence, these 1943 pennies are one of the most sought-after coins by collectors, and have been auctioned for more than $80000.

Lincoln Cent

Dates Minted:    1959 to present
Obverse Image:   Abraham Lincoln
Obverse Legend:  "In God We Trust", "Liberty", and the date
Reverse Image:   Lincoln Memorial
Reverse Legend:  "E Pluribus Unum", "One Cent", and "United States of America"

In 1959, on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, a new design for the penny was introduced. The assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, Frank Gasparro, created the entry for the informal competition. Still in use today, it is the first and only coin to have the same person on both sides. While the original obverse is the same as the original Lincoln Cent, it is also the only coin still in production where the portrait faces to the right.

Facts about the modern penny:

Weight:       2.500 g
Diameter:     0.75 in (19.05 mm)
Thickness:    1.55 mm
Seignorage: ~$0.003 (profit made by US government on each penny)

Get Rid of the Penny?

There has been a recent movement to do away with the penny. Most overseas military posts and bases have already done away with the one cent coin (e.g., you can spend it, but you will not receive it as change). It is extremely rare to find a vending machine that will accept pennies (though contrary to popular belief, a penny is legal tender). Most people simply keep their pennies in a jar and never use them, or just don't keep them at all.

Regardless of these facts, it is believed that doing away with the penny will hurt the economy by causing nearly $650 dollars per year in a sort of "penny tax" that would only benefit businesses. Prices would be changed so that store owners would keep the change from the rounding required without pennies. During economic recessions, penny circulation increases dramatically as people roll and spend them. Charities would suffer greatly as well - the penny is the most frequently donated coin, and charitable organizations receive tens of millions of dollars a year in pennies alone. The government has also made over $500 million in profit from the penny in the last 15 years which has kept the national debt from rising as fast, so it is unlikely that the penny will go away any time soon.


  • http://www.usmint.gov
  • http://www.pennies.org
  • http://www.coins.nd.edu/ColCoin/ColCoinIntros/Fugio.intro.html
  • http://www.coinfacts.com/small_cents/flying_eagle_cents/flying_eagle_cents.html