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LAST CALL FROM THE CENT

By Ed Reiter


 Calls for discontinuing the cent have been heard throughout much of U.S. coinage history – but especially in recent years, when the value of its metallic content has approached and even exceeded its face value as money.

 Similar calls were being heard during the 1970s, when the market price of copper rose dangerously close to the point where – theoretically, at least – cents could have been profitably melted to recapture their copper content.

 Uncle Sam addressed that problem in 1982 by making zinc, not copper, the dominant metal in the cent and concealing the mostly zinc core beneath a copper barrel plating to create the illusion that cents were still “red” through and through.

 In 1977, five years before that change took place, I ghost-wrote a story for COINage in which the cent itself made a heartfelt plea to keep its place in the U.S. coinage lineup.

 The facts and figures cited in the article have changed, of course, in the more than three decades since then, but the earnest words of the “author” ring just as true today as they did back in December ’77.

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 “A penny for your thoughts.”

 People were saying that long before I was born – and I’ve been around since 1793. No one seems to care, though, what I may be thinking myself. And with talk that I may be put out to pasture soon, there’s certainly plenty on my mind.

 Allow me to introduce myself. The United States cent, at your service. You may call me the penny, if you like; lots of people do. But “cent” is my proper name. It comes from the Latin word “centum” for 100, and the Founding Fathers chose it because I’m 1/100th of a dollar.

 People think of me as humble and common; some even sneer when they mention my name and dismiss me as measly – or, worse yet, as “one lousy cent.”

 It’s true I’m not highborn or fancy, like some of my sister coins. I’ve never had the glamour of a $20 gold piece or the dazzle of a shiny silver dollar. Just the same, mine is a proud heritage; I’ve played an important role in the history of the people I serve. And most of those people are pretty plain, too, you know. Maybe that’s why we’ve always felt so comfortable with each other.

 I’ve never been one to boast. And yet, if I wanted to, I could. Did you know, for example, that I was the very first coin our nation issued. Or that the U.S. Mint has made me in greater numbers than all its other coins put together. Fact is, I’ve carried every date but one since 1793 – and that was 1815, when fire disrupted the Mint’s operations. None of our other coins comes close to matching that record.

 I even had a hand in helping Uncle Sam win World War II. By making me of zinc-coated steel in 1943, the government was able to save 4,000 tons of copper – enough for use in building two cruisers, two destroyers, 1,245 Flying Fortress bombers and 240 cannons. Our GI’s returned the favor the following year: In 1944 and again in ’45, I was made from the metal in salvaged cartridge cases – an alloy closely approximating my regular coinage bronze.

 You’d never think it to look at me now, but at one time I carried a lot of weight. For my first three years, in fact, I weighed even more than the half dollar does today.

 People viewed money differently then; they figured a 50-cent piece should contain 50 cents’ worth of silver – or pretty close to it, at least. And a cent should contain a cent’s worth of copper. Now that silver’s gone from our coins, the half dollar’s metal isn’t worth much more than mine.

 I’ve carried Abe Lincoln’s portrait since 1909. Most folks never knew me any other way, so they take this design for granted – but back when it first came out, it caused quite a stir in some circles. Newspapers said the government was creating a Lincoln personality cult. By tradition, you see, the U.S. had avoided depicting real people on its coins. But the average American liked me this way: the common man’s president on the common man’s coin. And the Lincoln portrait now has appeared longer than any other design on any other coin in U.S. history.

 My very first design caused controversy, too. It showed the links in a chain, and was intended to symbolize the solidarity of the states in the Union. To many early Americans, though, it conveyed quite a different impression. “Liberty in chains,” critics cried – and the Mint backtracked quickly, changing the design after making barely 36,000 pieces.

 Early in my career, I featured various portraits of Miss Liberty. Later, I bore the likeness of an eagle in flight. But of all my earlier designs, the most familiar – and, I daresay, the best loved – is the so-called “Indian head.”

 Students of coinage history claim this particular portrait doesn’t show an Indian at all, but rather a Caucasian girl wearing an Indian headdress. Most everyone seems to agree, though, that this – like the Buffalo nickel – was a coin that truly captured the American spirit.

 I was made of pure copper until I reached the age of 64. I ws big and hefty, too: 3½ times heavier than I am today. But as time went by, both these circumstances came to be regarded as drawbacks. My copper composition caused me to grow black and foul with use, and my size made me bulky and inconvenient to carry. To make matters worse, the price of copper was rising and I was getting more and more expensive to produce – just as “experts” say I am today.

 Finally, in 1857, the Mint transformed me from the large cent of my youth into the small cent people are accustomed to today. At the same time, my little brother – the half cent – was banished from our family of coins.

 I was made of copper and nickel for a time. Then, in 1864, the Mint switched to bronze and trimmed my weight another one-third – and for all intents and purposes, I’ve remained the same ever since, other than changes in design.

 The trouble is, so much else has been changing. My purchasing power, for example. It takes more than a nickel now to buy what I alone used to buy in 1917 – and if inflation continues to rise at a 5-percent rate, it will take a dime by 1990.

 The Mint now makes 10 billion of me per year – three-quarters of its total coin production. People keep plucking me out of their pocket change, though, and squirreling me away in sugar bowls or drawers. It’s estimated that two-thirds of my output simply takes the place of coins that have been removed from circulation.

 For these and other reasons, the Treasury is thinking of killing me off.

 Could Americans get along without me? That Treasury report says they could. Prices, it says, could be rounded off – down as well as up – to the nearest nickel. Then, too, there’s talk of using checks or credit cards in place of cash, and thereby avoiding the need for using me.

 To tell you the truth, I’m worried. I’ve weathered other storms, though, and I like to think I’ve got history and tradition on my side.

 A world without pennies? To me, it just wouldn’t make cents.

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