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The Little Penny May Have Outlived Its Usefulness


America's little one-cent piece, or "penny," is becoming a bit of a nuisance. And it may soon go away.

The humble penny was our very first national currency. It's been around for 219 years. The penny never did buy much, and it's just about impossible to find ANYTHING priced at one or two or three cents today. Even so-called "penny candy" costs at least a nickel, or five cents.

Yet despite the penny's meager value, a 2002 survey found that 79 percent of Americans say they'll still reach down for one if they see it on the ground. After all, as the old rhyme goes:

"Find a penny, pick it up.
"All day long you'll have good luck."

A soaring eagle, a Native American in full headdress and, since 1909, onetime U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in profile have appeared on the penny, which is 97 percent zinc under a thin copper coating.

Some folks still save pennies in a jar and cash them in, from time to time, for folding money. A few people even inspect each penny to see if it's rare and valuable, like the 1943 copper-alloy penny minted in San Francisco. Only 40 of those are unaccounted for, and if you have one, it's worth about $75,000.

Although pennies have become a bit of a nuisance, we talk about them all the time. "A penny saved is a penny earned," after all. If someone's looking day-dreamy, we say, "A penny for your thoughts." When we sell something, we insist we "won't take a penny less." And come contract time, somebody else won't give us a penny more.

It isn't just its trifling value that has prompted the U.S. Congress to seriously consider doing away with the penny coin. For the first time, it now costs MORE than a penny to make one! The thinking goes that if we stop circulating pennies, all the prices and add-on taxes can be rounded to the nearest NICKEL. We won't need to fish in our pockets or purses for those annoying pennies any longer.

And just think, if pennies are no longer minted, over time all those pennies we've stuck in a jar somewhere could be worth, well, a pretty penny!

More essays in Ted Landphair's Only in America series

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