I’m not certain which store it was, but a few days ago I received some change back after a purchase, slipped it into my pocket and, once I got home, sorted through the coins, as is my habit. Silver coins went into one jar to be deposited later at the credit union, and the copper pennies into a flamingo-shaped bank that my wife eventually donates (and yes, I know, neither are truly silver or copper).
One of the pennies, though, was unusually worn, the obvious sign of age. The date: 1950, with the telltale “s” denoting it was minted in San Francisco. As someone who writes history books, that was enough of a prompt to set me wondering about the coin, which has been floating around the pockets and coin jars of America for 64 years now, and the times in which it was stamped out of the metal sheet some 400 miles to the northwest.
It was a transitional time. The world was five years out of World War II, Europe and Japan were rebuilding, and Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union with murderous intensity. McCarthyism was in full roar as the Korean War started up. Ralph Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering peace between Israel and the Arab states.
President Harry Truman authorized development of the hydrogen bomb and, later in the year, was the target of an unrelated assassination attempt by Puerto Rican separatists. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush turned 4 years old; Barack Obama’s mother was 8 and his father was 14. Los Angeles had 1.9 million residents (about half of today’s population) and Irvine, where I live, was a ranch. And my own parents were entering high school (they would marry four years later).
Culturally, Jack Kerouac published his first novel, “The Town and the City”; “All the King’s Men” won the best picture Oscar; Groucho Marx won the Emmy for “Most Outstanding Personality”; and the top Billboard single for the year was Gordon Jenkins and the Weavers for “Goodnight Irene,” followed by “Mona Lisa” by Nat King Cole — at a time when segregation still reigned.
A few weeks ago my colleague Paul Whitefield blogged about the penny, and said it was time we joined Canada in retiring the coin, in part because it costs more to make one than the coin’s face value. A perfectly sensible proposal, that. But I’d find it hard to give up these little talismans of history. Other coins carry dates, of course, but it’s the pennies, those hardy but little-valued survivors, that seem to turn up in my pocket with the oldest dates. In the handful of coins I just placed on my desk, there are five dimes and two nickels, all with dates in the 2000s, and one penny dated 1990, the year my oldest son was born.
Plus, I like the persistence of Lincoln’s image in such a fundamental part of our culture, simultaneously representing division and unification, a cycle we go through with regularity (right now we’re in one of the division troughs).
The dollar is the national currency, but pennies are the dollar’s atoms, the tiniest building blocks. Thus they are fundamental to our currency, and to our sense of nationhood. When you’re lucky enough to find an old one in your change, a penny can be a good excuse to take a look back at what we once were. And, in the strength and dignity of Lincoln’s face, what we can be.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times