August 27, 2010
The other day I got some change and realized the pennies had changed. Well, technically, since these were US coins, they’re cents, since they’re one one-hundredth of a dollar. The penny is an English coin which used to be one two-hundred-fortieth of a pound. It’s been said that the British resisted decimalization because they were afraid it would be too complicated. A friend of mine who went to Britain told me when he came back that he’d been baffled by the monetary system. He’d ask someone, "How much is this?" and they’d say, "Four pounds, six shillings, nine pins, three and a half crowns, two guineas, and a button." Of course this was about fifteen years after the British had switched to a decimal system so everything was in pounds and pence. The important thing I learned from this is never let the facts get in the way of a joke.
Back to the penny, though, I wonder what prompted the change. Every few years there’s a discussion about scrapping the penny but I don’t think it’ll ever happen as long as American consumers think $500 is too much to pay for something but $499.99 is a deal. In 2009 there were four different pennies issued to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, which was kind of a nice way to celebrate, but changing the penny again this year seems like too much too soon, especially with a whole slew of new quarters coming out. Sometimes I think we could learn something from Canada which has kept the same basic maple leaf design on its pennies since the French and Indian War. The only thing that’s changed has been the reigning monarch on the other side, and even there it’s been Queen Elizabeth since 1952. Sometimes I think one of the perks of being a monarch must be appearing on money. For a long time if Queen Elizabeth ever got stopped in Canada and asked for ID all she had to do was pull out a dollar bill. Now the Canadians have replaced their dollar bill with a dollar coin that has a loon on it, so Prince Philip can use that as ID, but that’s another story.
When I was a kid I learned from Popeye that a hundredsk pennies makesks a dollar, which turned out to be the only thing I learned from Popeye that was true. The other thing I learned from Popeye was that eating spinach would cause my biceps to swell and tiny tanks or mushroom clouds or angry Queen Elizabeths to appear on them, which, I was disappointed to learn, did not happen no matter how much spinach I ate. But I became obsessed with collecting enough pennies to make a dollar, and even beyond. I’d sit with my stacks of pennies and think about buying a new car, some caviar, and in my four-star daydream I’d think about buying a football team. Then someone gave me a coin-collecting book with little slot where I could insert pennies from specific years and even specific mints. Building a copper empire suddenly became a lot less interesting than finding a 1952-D. I still collect coins to this day, which is one reason I’m holding onto the new pennies I’ve gotten. As a kid I was fascinated by the fact that some pennies were more valuable than others. I was especially interested in wheat pennies, which, I was told by a source more reliable than Popeye, could be worth up to fifteen cents. Sometimes I’ll buy interesting coins, and my wife will ask why I’m spending money to buy money that I won’t spend. She’s got a point, although the quarter that I paid fifty cents for may someday be worth as much as a dollar. Some people think Benjamin Franklin was goofy for saying that a penny saved is a penny earned, because a penny saved is really just a penny. They’re thinking small and short-term. Save up enough pennies and you’ll be able to pay for that new television set with exact change, and lugging that much copper around will give you much bigger biceps than eating spinach. Or save pennies as a small piece of history, markers of a specific year. Besides, in Benjamin Franklin’s day a penny was enough to buy a car. Yes, I know they didn’t have cars back then, but never let the facts get in the way of a joke.