When the story aired in late March of a disgruntled boss paying a former employee what was owed to him in over 91,000 pennies, my first thought was that since most banks removed the change counting machines, the poor guy will have to fill over 1,800 rolls of pennies to cash them in. It also got me wondering why the penny is still being produced.

Most of us end up carrying them around as dead weight until we dump them in a jar at home until it is overflowing on the dresser, and spilling onto the carpet. We then must face the chore of rolling them up for the bank, or find a coin counter that will charge a fee or take a percentage. Most people won’t even bother to pick up a penny if we see one on the ground. We will chase a dollar bill blowing across an eight-lane freeway, but a penny? Not so much.

If we ask someone: “A penny for your thoughts?” they won’t even respond until we can come up with at least a dime. Even wishing wells will spit pennies back out at a dangerous velocity and immediately void your wish.

The American penny has been around since 1787, and Ben Franklin reportedly designed the first one. Rumor has it that he locked himself inside his study for months before shouting out to no one in particular: “I got it! It shall be round and have two sides!”

Since then, the one-cent piece has gone through 11 different designs, and over 300 billion minted since its outset. Many of the more desirable collectibles are still in circulation just waiting to be found. A Massachusetts man had a rare 1943 Lincoln penny that turned out to be one of 20 minted with copper instead of steel, which was being used for the war effort. Today it is valued at ... one million dollars.

When I was a boy, I traded three marbles and a Peter Tork bubblegum card for a rare 1902 Indian head penny, which I ended up losing in my messy bedroom (I blame my mother and her constant vacuuming). If I still had that coin today, in the condition it was in, it would be worth... one dollar.

Not so rare, I guess. The Peter Tork card is worth more.

In 1974, there was a penny shortage due to rising copper prices. Speculators thought that by hoarding them they could then melt them down at a tidy profit. Legislators responded by imposing a law against it with a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison. If you went to pay the fine driving a forklift to the courthouse carrying a load of 5,000 pounds of molten copper, then they really got mad.

Another shortage occurred when COVID-19 hit and the U.S. Mint scaled back production to keep its workers safe. In a closed economy, coins weren’t making it to the stores companies, and banks that needed them for business. It didn’t help when so many people on lockdown were going for the penny pyramid building challenge record, still held by Cory Nielson of Phoenix with 1,030,315 pennies (no glue).

By June, the mint was operating at full capacity, but the shortage continued since coins were still not circulating. At the time, 40% of the coins being minted were of the one-cent variety at a cost of two cents for every one made. Not the ideal business model, and yet they are still cranking out billions of pennies every year. I would hate to be the unfortunate mint worker who has to proofread every one.

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