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Two Penny Mysteries

Two Pennies-500 wide.jpg

I got another one today, just now when I ran up to McDonald’s to clear my head and grab a large coffee. With tax that’s $1.09. I gave the cashier lady a dollar and a dime. She gave me back a shiny new penny. Except…the penny was not new.

It was 18 years old.

I like pennies. Always have, and I’m not entirely sure why I should like pennies more than I like nickels or dimes. Color is part of it. Every other (common) coin is the same blah bare-metal not-steel, not silver color. A new penny is the color of bare copper wire, and copper wire and I go way back. Besides, I was born and raised in the land of Lincoln, whose face has now been on pennies for 110 years.

I like pennies so much that I still pick them up when I see them on the blacktop in parking lots. This is a habit vanishing into history, judging by the emergence of a phenomenon I’ve only begun to see in the last few years. I’ve coined the term “parking-lot penny” for the battered specimen above on the right. I picked it up a month or so ago in the Fry’s parking lot. Making a penny look like that takes time and tires. That poor little thing has been ground into the Arizona dust for a long time, what might be years. Once it approached the color of the dusty blacktop it rested on, I doubt many people even noticed it, much less bent down to pick it up. Me, I’ll rescue a penny anywhere, in any shape.

1977 penny-350 wide.kpg.jpgPennies don’t represent value much anymore. They’ve become accounting tokens. I think people now consider them a necessary nuisance; hence parking-lot pennies, of which I now have a dozen or so, gathered over the past year and (as it were) change.

Let’s go back to the mystery of the shiny 2001 D specimen at the top of this entry. Getting a penny like that now and then is unremarkable. The mystery lies in the fact that I am seeing a great many pennies in change that go back 50 years or more. Some of those oldies still have significant mint luster. A week or so ago I got a 1977 D at Fry’s with a lot of mint luster for a penny that’s been kicking around for 42 years. See for yourself. A week before that I got a 1969 penny that was in excellent shape, if lacking mint luster. Pennies in the 70s are a lot commoner than they were ten years ago, when the 70s were ten years closer.

I have a theory about this: Those anomalously old and good-looking pennies have not been kicking around. They’ve been in jars and milk bottles and other containers, some of them for a very long time. Alluva sudden, I’m seeing them several times a week. This takes me back a little to ordinary life in the 1960s and 1970s. Middle-class people often had a jar on the kitchen counter or, more commonly, on the dresser in the bedroom. People (men, mostly; men have pockets) would undress for the night, and if they had coins in their pants pockets, would toss them in a jar so they wouldn’t fall out when said pants were hung up in the closet. My parents didn’t do that, though I did, at least in high school. I had friends who did, and friends who had parents who did. It was not one of my (numerous) eccentricities. It was mainstream.

The penny-jar thing worked this way: Back when phone calls were a dime and quarters could buy gum or bus fare, people would dig in the jar while getting dressed in the morning and and fish out a few nickels, dimes and quarters for the day’s minor expenses. For the most part, the pennies were left behind, and over time what began as a small-change jar became a penny jar, with maybe a few dimes buried in the middle somewhere.

This habit slowly dwindled as coins lost value to inflation, but the penny jars remained somewhere, on the high shelf or in a bedroom dresser drawer. As Greatest Generationals (and now Boomers too) die, their children, while emptying out their parents’ houses to sell, lug the penny jar over to the bank or a grocery-store change machine and trade the pennies in for whatever they add up to, in somewhat more manageable form, like ten-dollar bills.

The banks wrap them in rolls and return them to circulation. And as people get change at McDonald’s, they get pennies back that look brand-new and yet may be 50 or 60 years old. But who even looks at pennies these days?

I do.

When I got the shiny 2001 penny this morning, I wondered for a moment about whomever had saved it from getting dirty or scraped around by SUVs in a parking lot somewhere. Had they died? Or just decided that ten pounds of pennies was more than enough? Whoever and wherever you are, good luck and…penny for your thoughts?


  1. Larry Nelson says:

    I’ve got a baby food jar in drawer that was my pot in penny ante poker in high school. Hasn’t been opened for decades. All solid copper pennies, none of the zinc core abominations.

    I still look through pennies checking dates. For some reason it is a great stroll down memory lane to recall events of the mint year. Maybe it is because I’m getting old; at least I can still remember those years.

    The ever declining value of the penny has caused to do what would have been unthinkable in my youth. I often do a penny purge at the convenience store give-take cup just to clear my pocket.

    For some reason I have always had a great fondness for nickels. They had a bit more heft.

    Recently minted nickels aren’t as nice, the have taken a fraction off the thickness of the coin and relief is reduced. The “state series” quarters have suffered the same fate and just don’t feel right when compared to an older quarter.

    1. Agreed on the recent nickles and quarters. They look cheap, and one wonders how much of that low-relief art will still be there after twenty or thirty years in circulation.

      There is a related sort of coin I get in change now and then: A quarter that has distinctive scratches and dings that I realized after a trip to Vegas in the 90s is what happens to quarters that do time in slot machines. I thought I had one somewhere but it isn’t in the coin cup. No matter; they turn up regularly.

  2. Tom Roderick says:

    My parents bought their last house in 1973 while I was away in the Air Force. When I returned home there was a full size butter churn in the corner of the den that was beginning to fill with mostly pennies. It was there for the rest of my parents life, with my dad passing in 2007. The churn stayed since I didn’t sell the house until 2017. I never went through what was in it. I gave it, and the contents, to some relatives that drove up from about 90 miles away and helped me get the house cleaned out for the sale. I still pick up pennies to this day off the street and from parking lots, but most often I just spend them.

    1. I doubt there were any valuable coins in it, if he didn’t start until 1973. By the time I was in college (1970) people were already picking wheat pennies and silver coins out of pocket change and they were getting scarce, even the ones that (in 1970) were only twelve or thirteen years old. I haven’t gotten a wheat penny in change in several years, maybe ten. I don’t recall the last time, honestly.

      One of the little cups in the mini-taboret on my desk is for odd coins. I got a Cayman islands penny in change here back in the 1990s. I get Canadian coins regularly, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the number of Canadians who winter over down here. War nickles, 1943 steel pennies, and a grimy, beat-to-hell 1969 Kennedy half (not silver) that looks like it sat in a parking lot for some time, though that boggles me. To me, 50c is still real money. You could get three kites and two rolls of string for that back in 1963.

      I guess I’m just old.

      1. Lee Hart says:

        Jeff, do you remember George Ewing’s “Dome on the Range” geodesic dome he lived in while he was building his house in Sheboygan MI? Well, when the house was done, we had a “dome wrecking” berserker to dismantle it.

        Being George, it had a dirt floor. Being near Lake Huron, it was in fact a beach sand floor. Everything he had dropped for the last decade or so was in that sand. We found so much grot that we started sifting it through an old window screen.

        Besides the assorted nuts and bolts, lost car keys, silverware, PL-259’s, crystals, transistors, vacuum tubes, etc. was an endless supply of loose change. The funny thing is, much of it was amazingly old, or foreign, or bent, or otherwise odd. US, Canadian, Mexican, German, French, English… Pennies with a hole that had been used as a washer. Coins that looked like they had (barely) survived a garbage disposal.

        It seems that George put anything he found interesting in his pocket, which later leaked out into the sands of time.

        George once sold a car piled to the windows with grot, on the proviso that the buyer had to clean it out himself. He found more money in the car than he paid for it!

        1. I was there. What a riot! What was interesting is that we tore the dome down (under his supervision) before he had completed the wallboard inside his new A-frame house. There were no walls in the bathroom, just frame studs. As it was a coed group, we had to improvise a little (think towels) but everybody had a fine time.

  3. jon spencer says:

    If you find a wheat penny, the least valuable of those is 2 cents.
    Any time you double your money, its a good day.

    As for picking up pennies from the ground. The old superstition for good luck, was if it is tails up, turn it heads up and leave it there for the next person and pick it up if it was already heads up.

    1. Well, these days, parking-lot pennies being what they are, I’d be hard-pressed to tell which side is actually up. See the photo, and imagine it at your feet in brilliant Arizona sunlight. I rubbed the dirt off of it, which may have been a mistake.

  4. Orvan Taurus says:

    I was shocked, some years ago, to find I had gotten a Mercury dime in change. And yeah, haven’t seen a wheatback in some while now.

  5. Roy Harvey says:

    Picked up a penny in a parking lot just yesterday.

    At the end of the day the change gets emptied from my pockets, but the pennies are always put aside for the jar. I always look through them for wheat pennies first. Of course reading your post meant I had to go check what I had.

    I couldn’t be bothered to count the wheat pennies, but they weighed out at around 405 grams. With them were 24 steel pennies I’d forgotten because I didn’t collect they myself. (Checked with a magnet off the refrigerator.) They were found among some old stuff from my wife’s side.

    Then there was the miscellaneous… one Kennedy half, 1 Sacajawea dollar (2000), and one silver quarter (1964). Plus a two-dollar bill, and two one dollar silver certificates.

    The question is, if/when will the US follow Canada’s lead and eliminate the penny? Prices there are still to the cent, as are payments made by plastic, check, ETF, etc., but cash purchases rounded up or down to the nearest multiple of 5.

    1. Ha. I’d heard that about Canada some years back and forgot to check if it was really true. It really is, since 2013. I wonder if anyone has seriously suggested that we do it here. I guess it would bother me a little, but in truth I understand the dynamics and wouldn’t blame the Feds if they retired out little brown coin.

      There’s a nice old poem from Yeats that I read in college and always liked:

      “Ahh, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
      I am looped in the loops of her hair.”

      Carol’s hair never had loops, but in honor of how bound to her I was (by far better things than hair, heh) I bought her a US large cent from the 1850s. Now THAT was a penny!

  6. Tom Roderick says:

    I went to the Home Depot today for a few items and the only open checkouts were self scan lanes, but there was an attendant for the lot of them nearby. I paid for my purchase in cash with a $20 bill and my change was $5.06 The self scan machine was out of change. It set off an alarm for the attendant who quickly ran over, saw what the problem was and said she would get the rest of my change, I already had the $5 bill. She was only gone for a few seconds and came back and said they they were out of change and she would have to go to the office to get some. I just said never mind and for a second I think it confused her and she said are you sure, and I said that 6 cents was just not worth the wait. So maybe this is how they are planning to get rid of all coins!

  7. It happened again today: I got a single penny in change at Mickey Dee’s, and it was a 1984 D, in superb condition without about half of its mint luster still there.

  8. […] old pennies continue to arrive in my hand, at both McDonald’s drive-through and the Fry’s supermarket across the parking lot. […]

  9. […] than I generally do. Last fall I noticed that I was getting a lot of old-ish pennies in change, and wrote up my theory that older people are dying, and their kids are cashing in the penny jars in the kitchen cabinets, […]

  10. […] old pennies appear to be back. (See my entry for November 7, 2019.) Over the last two weeks, at least 75% of the pennies I’ve gotten at McDonald’s were […]

  11. […] I’m still getting old coins in change at McDonald’s and other stores when I pay cash. The nation’s penny jars are still emptying into our outstretched hands. The other day I scored a 1969-S and a 1975-D in one […]

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