It’s always fun to learn about odd weights and measures. What is the biggest or longest, smallest or shortest, and how much does it weigh? When you hold a penny, it seems to have no heft to it at all. It does have some weight, of course, and today we will discover just how much this least valuable of the common American coins weighs.
Of all the coins out there, it is the least significant of them. It is fitting, then, that perhaps our most humble president, Abraham Lincoln, is honored by having his image embossed upon it.
The dime is as small, but with its bright silver design and ridged edges, one would know by sight that it is most valuable of the two in spite of having no understanding of American coinage.
A Penniless Life
Yet, the penny is not to be underestimated. Without it, all prices would have to round up or down to the nearest nickel. That may not sound like a lot, but let’s look at an item we buy almost every day: a cup of coffee (or, a soda).
If that cup of coffee (or soda) costs $1.19, and there is seven cents’ sales tax on it, the total amount due the vendor is $1.26. That is an easy sum to pay with a dollar bill, a quarter, and a penny. Lacking that, we give two dollar bills and a penny, expecting back three quarters. Or, we give two dollars without the penny and receive two quarters, two dimes, and four pennies in return.
What if there is no penny? The price has to end up at either $1.25 or $1.30. If it rounds up, I pay an extra $10 per year. If it rounds down, the vendor loses $2.50 per year on me. That may not sound like a lot, but imagine the lack of a penny having that kind of effect on 100 items I buy regularly, or on 50 items the restaurant sells to 100 customers daily That brings annual costs of $1,000 and $12,500 to me and the proprietor, respectively. For a lot of individuals and small businesses, that’s not junk change.
As you might guess, determining the weight of a penny depends on a number of variables. When was the penny made? Has it been in circulation or kept in a piggy bank? Is it clean or dirty?
When the penny was made is the biggest factor. Today we would only recognize a Lincoln cent, so we will look solely at the weight of the Lincoln penny. First struck in 1909 on the centennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth, it was the first coin to bear the image of a historical figure. Previous versions of the penny had an eagle and a Native American head dress on the face.
From 1909 through 1942, the Lincoln cent’s composition was 95% copper with the balance a mix of tin and zinc, and weighed in at 3.11 grams. After 1943, it weighed 3.11 grams again.
1943’s steel cent.
In 1943, and for that year only, the Lincoln penny was made of zinc coated steel. Copper was too precious to put in pennies. It was needed for the war effort. The steel penny weighed 2.75 grams and caused all sorts of problems. First, it was often mistaken for a dime. Also, since it would stick to a magnet, the steel penny caused problems with vending machines using magnets to detect steel slugs. Since the zinc coating did not adhere well to the edges, they would rust in sweaty hands.
Due to public outcry over the 1943 experimental penny, 1944-46 pennies were made using copper from spent weapons casings, and the weight was back to 3.11 grams. After the war, production went back to its normal levels.
Beginning in 1982, the penny became lighter. This is because the price of copper was rising to the point that the value of the metal exceeded that of the coin. Pennies made since 1982 are 97.5% zinc with a copper plating that makes up 2.5% of its weight. A new brand new penny minted today weighs 2.5 grams, about 20% less than its more coppery predecessor.
In 2009, a special commemorative set of pennies was issued to honor the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Featuring four different designs on the back sides of the coins, the set draws inspiration for its scenes from the President’s life: The log cabin of his birth, the rail splitting days of his youth, his tenure as an Illinois legislator, and his presidency. Along with having four special designs that year, these commemorative pennies were cast from the original 1909 composition of 95% copper and 5% zinc and tin. That means, if you find a 2009 bicentennial penny, it will weigh 3.11 grams.
Buying pennies by the pound? Paying face value, a pound of pre-1982 pennies will likely cost you $1.45. A one pound bag of brand new pennies at face value will cost about $1.82.
Want to know even more facts and folklore about pennies? I knew you would!
Do you have a lucky penny? Plenty of people do. They keep it in their wallet or billfold, or might stick it in a pocket or shoe when they can’t have those with them — brides sometimes do that.
The idea of a lucky penny may point back to the time when people believe that certain metals offered protection from evil spirits (and their influence upon other people).
Surely you’ve heard, “Find a penny, pick it up; all day long, you’ll have good luck.” Don’t be so fast to grab it, though. Adherents to the myth believe that if the coin is tails up, you should turn it over but leave it for another person to find. Picking it up may bring worse luck than you would have had without it.
Come upon Lincoln’s shining face, though, and it’s a find to get but not necessarily to keep. Another variation on this superstition is that you will have even better luck when you quickly pass thta face-up penny on to someone else.
Pennies from Heaven
Have you ever come upon a penny on the coffee table and wondered how it got there? You know that you have not had any change around here. No one has been in the room since you last were, and you are certain the penny was not sitting there then.
Another common superstition about pennies is the belief that they can be left by a departed loved one to let us know they are near. It is thought to be there little way of saying, “hello.” If you find a penny like that, be sure to check the year to see if it is a date that may be significant to you or a loved one that has passed.
Do you know of an energy source that can power the whole state of New York for two days at a cost of just $1? Sure you do! It’s penny power!
Albert Einstein’s relativity formula, commonly known as E=MC2, calculates the conversion of mass to energy. We do not have the knowledge or equipment yet to do it, but if we could, the mass of 100 pennies can be converted to enough energy to power all the entire Empire State for a weekend. That’s every house, farm, factory, and store in all of its nearly 55,000 square miles and for nearly 20 million people.
A Measure of Mean
In their song, Taxman, there is a piece of tax preparation advice for when we are dead: “Declare the pennies on your eyes.” When people died long ago, small coins (usually pennies) were placed on the eyelids to hold them in place (closed) until the body’s natural processes set them that way. To have to declare the pennies on your eyes may make no sense to an accountant, but it helps us understand George Harrison’s disdain for the high English taxes he was paying.
An old saying sprang from the practice of putting pennies on the eyes of the recently deceased. To say someone is, “so mean, he’d steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes,” is to say he is the lowest of the low, the cruelest of the cruel, with ice water flowing in his veins if anything flows there at all.
The Mint Loses Money
We touched briefly on the cost of making a penny when we discussed the change from copper to zinc in 1982. Well, the cost of both copper and zinc continue to rise. Today, it costs the U. S. Mint 1.7 cents to make each and every penny. That’s 70% more to make it than it is worth. That makes the penny the least cost efficient coin the mint produces. Not far behind is the nickel, costing 60% more to make than it is worth (8 cents).
On its face, that loss seems terrible and to continue making pennies and nickels sounds like a losing proposition. It’s not, though. While the mint may absorb this initial deficit, without the penny millions of businesses would face a combined loss into the hundreds of millions of dollars from all of the adjustments they would have to make to account for its absence. Take away the nickel, too, and some types of businesses might temporarily come to a halt over it.
No, in spite of how much it weighs, the penny is an important piece in our monetary system. We would surely miss it if it was no longer made or accepted. What do you think about the penny? Do you have any lucky penny stories? Would you miss the penny if it were gone? Tell me about it in the comments, and thanks for reading!