Somewhere between 150 and 200 billion pennies circulate in the United States, enough pennies for every American to have 530 of their own. Regardless, people know pennies as the pesky brown coins that pile up in their wallets. Since 1787, over 300 billion pennies have been minted, but about half of them have been retired, lost in drains, or stored in dusty jars on forgotten bookshelves . So why does the United States Mint continue to produce these copper-plated zinc coins that cost more to manufacture than they are worth on the market? The answer lies at the intersection of the forces of official memory and the invented tradition of legacy that coins offer as a commodified connection to a storied American past. In addition to unearthing the Mint’s role in circulating Lincoln’s memory, this post will explore the alternative courses of commemoration that Americans are embarking on with their pennies. Before reading on, please review this introduction to the origins of the penny.
The Government’s Price for a Lincoln Memory
The United States Mint works to “Connect America through coins” . Is the government insinuating an economic connection or a patriotic camaraderie propagated through the faces cemented on the coins? It is no coincidence that the government uses the pennies national circulation in an effort to increase Lincoln’s acceptance, as his memory has traditionally been more revered by northerners. His memory on the penny cognitivizes general themes of legacy and leadership that can be transferred into various vernacular memories. Furthermore, officials have historically had to decide between appearance and costs. In 1982, the US Mint changed the composition of the penny from pure copper to a cheaper counterpart, zinc, with a thin copper coating . Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln’s portrait remained. This switch indicates that the government, while looking to stay fiscally responsible, still valued a material association between Lincoln and the rich, durable look of copper. This transition first occurred at the Denver Mint and it alludes to the penny as a palimpsest–physically changing but never able to separate itself from the intentions of its original creators.
The US Mint website contains a graphic that displays 2015 coin production totals at each Mint facility. Similar charts reveal that penny production has increased annually by at least one billion from 2011 to 2014. Still, the production of other denominations is growing faster; the government loses $105 million per year on the penny and nickel . There has been no decision from the government on ceasing penny production, but Huffington Post claims that President Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of the future of currency, particularly the penny and the nickel . This review is monumental since it is the first of its kind, likely because it looks hypocritical for an official body to question a social construction it has upheld for over a century. Nonetheless, if the penny remains it will have Lincoln’s image, which has yet to face major contestation during its tenure.
In terms of Lincoln memory, the aforementioned productivity changes speak volumes. The US government and businesses have done more of late to distanciate Lincoln’s place in history than to strengthen it. For instance, his shared birthday holiday is being overshadowed by sales, and he is still most revered through a courageous lens of premature death. Imagine the criticize faced by the US government if it decided to do away with the penny abruptly and in sequence with Great Britain and Canada? It might seem as if it did not care about Lincoln and his legacy. Once production totals fall enough and pennies seem even more worthless, the government can decide to do away with the coin, after holding out long enough to create the assumption that reverence has been paid to Lincoln memory.
From Circulating to Collectible
On the “Lincoln Penny (One Cent)” page on the US Mint website, there is a link allowing consumers to “shop related products.” Clicking on it does not lead to a Lincoln penny; in fact, a featured product is a Presidential 2015 One Dollar Coin Proof Set that does not portray Lincoln at all. This leads to the understanding that the government is using Lincoln merely as a gateway, a stepping stone to attract the attention of Americans, distanciate Lincoln’s particular history from the coin, and leave a universal idea of democratic legacy into which a wide array of American collectors can buy.
Some sources claim that the Mint will offer a final proof set of pennies, disguising the fact that Lincoln will stop circulating by making him available for consumption. Besides investment, people collect coins for the ownership aspect–to place themselves within an imagined community that is linked to the inspiring, honorable, and patriotic facets of historical memory in which Americans are conditioned to take pride. Americans favor keeping the penny (51%) because it is so connected with Lincoln’s image that it would be viewed as tarnishing his reputation if it was taken out of circulation and, thus, forgotten . People do not care themselves that the penny is circulating, but they worry that if it is not a public staple, future generations will forget Lincoln in history.
Redesigns have been introduced at milestones, like in 2009 when four reverse portraits circulated to honor the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and centennial of the first Lincoln cent . It is ironic that the government honors such specific moments in history with coins, which will be used long after their relevant periods. Timely product introductions follow business model that keeps the public generally engaged while catering to an especially attentive population that does not want to forego possessing any available piece of official US memory. Circulating material memory forces people to subconsciously incorporate old traditions into current practices. Pennies are valued as keepsakes that propel people into a larger community of American forefathers.
Today on eBay, pennies range in price from $0.01 to $46,240, which signifies how time and vernacular sentiment determines the value of a material memory.
What are people doing with extra pennies? Now, one can pay to transform their change into a portrait memory that serves as a more obvious and dominating commemoration.
The penny has reached a new stage in its lifecycle where it still serves as a moving commemoration to Lincoln, but for symbolic reasons that are becoming fuzzier to the public. One could say the penny is less sanctifying and more of a designation nowadays. Modern interpretations have no way of being physically integrated with the minted pennies, so there is no way Lincoln’s full memory can be projected by the coin. At its inception, a penny meant hope (of wealth), and this view was merged with Lincoln’s involvement in the Civil War to signify a collective hope for the nation. Today, the hope motif still remains with the penny beyond a solely political context. However, it has been distorted together with the “lucky” penny myth, distanciating Lincoln’s historical association with the penny.
If you can’t buy anything for a penny nowadays, then for what are they known? They are perhaps the most nostalgic coin because their lack of value makes them good candidates for art projects. If anything, Lincoln memory has been enhanced recently because controversy has been spurred around the penny. People don’t seem to care about memory until it is being threatened. By taking away Lincoln, it is reasonable to say that a broader esteemed memory of presidents is being marginalized.
By organizing many unique pennies to create one recognizable and unified image, American citizens give a definition to Lincoln’s well-known face, confirming him as a leader more significant than can be expressed by a single penny. On the contrary, art projects also exist that rectify Lincoln’s association with the penny in favor of vintage decoration. With easy access to the internet, some people are confident they can uphold Lincoln memory with online resources; an antiquated coin is no longer necessary. Still, DIY projects allow people to feel like they have a say in circulating their take on Lincoln memory.
Are these alternatives true forms of Lincoln memory? Yes, but they do not reflect the same memory that existed 50 years ago. Today, Lincoln’s memory has narrowed from what it once was. It has become more intense and particular to those who care to discover rather than being wholly universal. Lincoln’s images is circulated more through penny myths (“Lincoln must be good because the penny is lucky”) than through monetary transaction, but his memory is equally distorted. Consider this: how bad would it be to “forget” Lincoln by eliminating the penny since he is also on the five dollar bill?
 Enchanted Learning. “The US Penny.” Accessed March 17, 2015, http://www.enchantedlearning.com/math/money/coins/penny/
 The United States Mint. “Coins.” Accessed March 17, 2015, http://catalog.usmint.gov/shop/coins/?_ga=1.236436871.765406809.1425486486
 Jennifer Abel. “US Mint stil loses money minting pennies and nickels.” Consumer Unified LLC. Last modified December 16, 2014, http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news/us-mint-still-loses-money-minting-pennies-and-nickels-121614.html
 Sam Stein. “Penny will not be eliminated…at least until 2015.” The Huffington Post. Last modified March 14, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/14/eliminate-the-penny_n_4965908.html
 The United State Mint. “Lincoln Penny (One-cent Coin).” Accessed March 20, 2015, http://www.usmint.gov/mint_programs/circulatingCoins/?action=circPenny
Digital Media Sources
4. (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vlBcIZfi8ck
5. (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OENCFdwrKOU