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Pennies, Bad Pennies, and Common Cents

In English, we say a bad penny always turns up.  Today we use it to refer to a person we’d rather not see but who keeps coming around anyway.  We don’t think of it as referring to a literal bad penny, a counterfeit penny.  Really, how many of us have ever seen a counterfeit penny?  I’ve been collecting coins for most of my life and I haven’t run across one, or even heard of anyone counterfeiting them.  Why bother?  They wouldn’t be worth the effort you put into making them.  If you’re going to counterfeit, go for $20 bills, or even quarters, at least.

There was a time when pennies were worth a bit more, and were worth the effort to counterfeit.  In 15th century England.  At this time, the English penny was a silver coin, not copper.  (There were coins called farthings which were smaller than pennies, and these were made of copper.)  The penny was a fairly valuable coin—more valuable than we think of pennies today, anyway.  It makes a kind of sense, then, that people would counterfeit them, and they did.  The phrase “bad penny” dates from 15th century England, when these fake silver coins were starting to turn up.  It was probably easier to counterfeit a penny at this point in time than at any other.  Throughout the Middle Ages, the silver content of real pennies had been decreasing in England.  Official government pennies contained 92% silver and 8% copper in the 12th century.  From that time on, pennies gradually contained more copper and less silver, so it was hard to say exactly how much of each metal should be in a penny.  Since the genuine article was harder to identify, a counterfeiter’s job was made easier.

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Silver English penny with King Richard III’s face, circa 1483.
Economic crises lead to shortages of cash.  One way people used to deal with this was to (illegally) trip slivers of silver and gold from the edges of coins, and melt the shavings into bars of bullion or, if you had the skills and the guts, into new coins.  By the end of the Nine Years’ War in England, in 1696, clipping had gotten so bad that the Crown recalled all coins, damaged or not, and established a new standard system of coinage.  New pennies, struck at the Royal Mint under the guidance of Sir Isaac Newton, were made of silver again.  Since silver was in relatively short supply, England suffered from a shortage of pennies until 1797, when the copper penny was introduced.  To meet this need, merchants would issue tokens made of copper or bronze or lead or whatever metal they wanted.  They weren’t official coinage, but they were used as such.  A merchant up the street might accept them, but no bank would.  At this point, there were no more “bad pennies”, since these tokens, replacing pennies, had no standard size, shape or design.

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England’s first copper penny, picturing King George III, 1797
The American colonies used British money, of course, but also in common circulation were coins from France, Spain and Austria.  Americans made tokens of their own, since the silver penny shortage affected the colonists, too.  After the Revolution, this system continued until the United States Mint was opened in 1792.  The Mint started issuing copper coins worth 1/100 of a cent right from the beginning.  These copper coins, about the size of a quarter, would circulate alongside these tokens, and would eventually replace the tokens.  The Mint called these new coins cents, but to date, Americans seldom call them that.  Cent is still the official word that the Mint uses, and penny is, to them, just slang.

During the Washington administration, a Boston merchant started striking tokens with George Washington’s face on them.  Washington didn’t care for this, since he felt that putting leaders’ faces on coins was something more suited to kings and emperors, and not to a popularly elected president.  He requested that the merchant cease production of this design, and the merchant complied.  Some of these tokens still exist today, and are valuable collectors’ items.

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Token with President Washington’s portrait, 1791.  The president did not approve.

The Mint finally did get around to putting Washington’s face on a coin.  His face first appeared on the quarter in 1932, in celebration of the Washington bicentennial, and it’s still there today.  The first president to make his way to the face of a coin was Abraham Lincoln, who first appeared on the penny (sorry… the cent) for the Lincoln centennial in 1909.  Perhaps it was Washington’s distaste for his face, as a living president, appearing on a coin, that kept the Mint from putting presidents’ faces on coins for so long.  It’s still official policy of the Mint to not put the image of any living person on coins, and we have a similar policy regarding stamps and paper money.  It’s never been illegal to, so that could theoretically change at any time, but for the foreseeable future, that policy is going to remain in place.


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