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By Greg Burns

Do you know just how far back the history of our penny goes?

Now before any of the purists start muttering about how we only have “cents” (the correct name of the denomination) and not pennies, I’ll protest in advance that “pennies” is precisely what most people call them, and since I’m the one writing this article that’s a term I’ll accept and you’ll have to too!

Back to our original question, many folks would answer that our penny’s history was originated along about the year 1793 when the flowing hair, chain type reverse coin was originally struck by the newly founded mint in Philadelphia. In fact, these (along with half cents) were the first coins struck at the new mint.

These first United States cents showed a chain composed of fifteen links on the reverse. These were supposed to symbolize unity among the new states, but the chain reminded too many people of the chains of slavery that had just been broken, and the controversy resulted in a new reverse design that same year that substituted a wreath for the chain.

But, you know what? The history of the penny goes back farther than that. We didn’t come up with the idea for the minor copper coin, we got it from someone else. In fact, we had been using copper minors for quite some time in the form of British pennies and half-pennies, as well as copper minors from France and other countries.

Well then, some would say that the copper British half-pennies were the equivalent of our early large cents (on a roughly equivalent weight basis of 12.56 grams versus our early cent’s 13.58 grams), so our penny’s history should start there, but since the title of our article is on pennies I’ll switch from the British half unit to the whole at this point and merely point out that the copper British penny was first struck in 1797 ... fully four years after our copper penny! Before that, all British pennies had been in silver. (Of course, the British half-penny, which was the real financial equivalent to our early large cents, had been struck in copper for quite a long time -- as early as Queen Elizabeth [1558-1603] though there were also silver half-pennies, but we agreed to ignore the half-units, remember?).

So if the British pennies mark the start of the history of the denomination, then the earliest pennies were really in silver and struck in the sixteenth century, right?

Well, actually we can go back a bit farther than that. King Pepin the Short (752-768) introduced a new coin called the Novus Denarius, sometimes referred to as a Denarius Argenteus, during his reformation of the Frankish coinage. This small silver coin served as the prototype for the deniers and silver pennies that later developed throughout Europe and England (King Offa [757-796] is credited with using Pepin’s idea for this small silver coin and is the first Saxon king to mint a coin called a “penny”, though it was based on Pepin’s coin). So now at least we’re back to the eighth century with the history of our penny.

Well, good King Pepin’s coin’s name should contain a hint as to whether we’re going to continue our backward journey to find the source of our penny’s history. Note that the first part of the name Novus Denarius translates from it’s Latin into English as “new”. Guess what? If King Pepin was calling his coin the “new denarius” that means that there must have been an “old denarius”. And there was.

The Roman Empire (big organization that at one time ruled most of the western European continent) had something they called a “denarius”. Just like Pepin’s later coin, these were silver, were about the size of a dime, but were around twice as thick (65 grains or 4.12 grams). (Interestingly, the symbol for the British penny, a “d”, is a vestigial reminder of the denarius.) At one time a Roman soldier was paid around 255 denarii a year -- a pay rate upon which he could live fairly comfortably. Common laborers were paid perhaps half as much.

So then, I guess we can conclude that our penny’s history goes back to the Roman Empire? Come now, you know me better than that by now. I still have a few inches of column space left.

You see, even though the Roman’s were crack warfare makers and government administrators, they did envy the subjugated Greeks their art and other cultural artifacts. So much so, in fact, that after the Romans conquered the Greeks the early Roman denarii were oftimes minted by Greek slave artisans using the techniques and styles they had developed in minting the Greek drachms to which the denarius was a sort of second cousin. These early Greek coins have some of the most beautiful designs ever minted, and if you haven’t seen any, go immediately to your nearest coin book or encyclopedia and look some up ... incredible artistry.

So, after all of this our penny’s history traces back to somewhere in Greece (perhaps Athens or Corinth?) around 500BC, roughly 2500 years ago. And that’s long enough for anybody. Even me.


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