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Most Minted Coin In World History
Most Minted Coin In World History | Penny, Pennies, Alan Nelson, Copper, Zinc

I received a 1955 Lincoln penny in change at a McDonald’s drive through when I ordered a large coffee.  That coin still glinted dully in my hand despite 55 years of traveling through the wheels of commerce. It is pure copper, unlike pennies minted after 1982. 

Pennies are the definition of ubiquitous. The Lincoln penny is the most minted coin in world history.  A spokesman at the U.S. Mint today that more than 1.8 billion were minted the first six months of this year alone, compared to 938 million in 1955.  Despite the era of debit cards and credit cards, pennies pour into the world.

At present, pennies are copper electroplated over a zinc core, making the coin 2.5 percent copper and 97.5 percent zinc. In fact, an article from the 1989 issue of Coin recommended that people hoard Lincoln cents minted before 1982 because of the metal content.  Whenever copper is more than $1.54 a pound – the weight of 154 Lincoln pennies – it reaches the break-even point for the coin’s smelter value. Copper prices at this writing hover at $3.20 a pound.

That same issue of Coin lamented the change to zinc, saying it was the final step in the government’s move from a hard currency to a fiat-currency money system.  Hard currency, of course, means the coin itself has value, while fiat means the coin is representative, or symbolic of value. Shades of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

And the penny generates people who would remove it from history.

“What’s the point of pennies?” a friend who is an economist asked me.  “Pennies are pointless. Pennies cost us more than a penny to make and circulate.”

While his logic is sound, my gut clutches at the thought of no more pennies. Perhaps inflation would bump up a tiny bit. Perhaps transactions based on value would be a bit less exact. Perhaps  the friction from the flow of money would increase on some multiplier effect from the loss of the penny. Or perhaps it’s an aversion to change.

Other countries have removed the penny from circulation. Over the last three decades, many movements in Congress rose to ban the penny.  They failed. Some bills that died tried to ban the penny indirectly by requiring transactions be rounded up or down to the nearest dollar.

The response to these movements has been instructive. Americans like fractions of the dollar. Americans like to hoard pennies, regardless of the year or content.  Americans like pennies.   For now, the penny stays.  I’m not upset by that.