“So don’t pass by that penny when you’re feeling blue. It may be a penny from heaven, that an angel’s passed to you.”—Poet Charles Marshburn
Every new year, we traditionally extend proverbial wishes for good luck and prosperity. After some thought, I’ve decided the lowly penny might be the way to cover both bases.
After all, who didn’t grow up hearing, “Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck?” To this day, I’m still guilty of the childhood practice of picking up a “heads up” penny for luck but turning over a “tails up” one-cent piece, leaving it for someone else to find good fortune.
Fortune in some perspective might be hard to measure in pennies today, but the copper tokens bearing the familiar profile of Honest Abe represent more than mere monetary value. In fact, the penny evokes priceless value in expressions that have coined philosophies of American life for generations.
My grandmother’s favorite was, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” As a young couple with a child in the 1920s, my father’s parents survived “The Great Depression” when most people were so poor, they “didn’t have two pennies to rub together.” That experience likely gave rise to financial advice she and her generation offered mine. Sayings like “Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves,” were reminders that taking care of every penny was paramount to financial security.
That advice no doubt served my grandparent’s generation well. Neither graduated from high school, he worked the same job six days a week for 53 years and she managed the home front never owning a washing machine or working a day at an outside job. They paid cash for everything except the only house they ever owned, never wanting for anything and living a comfortable and happy life in the process. While I’m thankful there are better opportunities for today’s generations, their example speaks volumes about a healthy respect for the value of a penny.
“A penny for your thoughts,” is another bit of wisdom attributed to the meager one-cent piece. While my response to that query is usually, “advice is worth what you pay for it,” the offer establishes some modicum of value for knowledge.
Then there’s “bad pennies” that seem to turn up in life. Never was sure what a bad penny was exactly. To my father, all pennies were good pennies. He was a coin collector, and I spent hours helping him scrutinize every penny that passed through the family pockets searching for that elusive, unique or valuable piece of minted money which he proudly displayed in books of U.S. minted “big” pennies, “Indian Head” pennies and the “newer” Lincoln pennies.
Today, “rattling money” is little more than a nuisance in my pockets amid plastic money, folding money, or more often no money. But perhaps dad’s appreciation for a penny is why my gaze stopped on a “wheat” penny in my pocket pile one day a couple of years ago.
For those with birth certificates newer than mine, a wheat penny has Lincoln on the front and two stalks of wheat on the back framing the words, “One Cent” and “United States of America.” They were minted from 1909 to 1958. In 1959, the reverse side was replaced with a likeness of the Lincoln Memorial.
Finding a wheat penny in pocket change today is rare enough, but the odds of someone giving me one bearing the date 1919 in change at a Center, Texas, business that day might have been good enough to win the lottery. The coin, nearly 100 years old at the time, was minted when plenty of Indian Head pennies were still in pockets and cash registers. World War I had ended the year previous year when someone first pocketed the penny.
The same year, Congress approved the Grand Canyon as a national park; a flight from New York to Atlantic City established the first commercial airline service; and the 19th amendment to the constitution giving women the right to vote was newly ratified. My father’s parents were practically newlyweds having tied the knot in 1920.
So, what’s a 1919 “wheat” penny worth? Besides lots of memories and some sage advice about life and luck, about 70¢ according to numismatic value guides.
Depending on how you look at it, however, the luck of receiving an almost 100-year-old coin in change at a local business—that was priceless. Or, maybe it was “worth a pretty penny” in financial wisdom.
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