Today in 1793, the U.S. Mint issued its first circulating coins.
They cast 11,178 copper coins, each worth one cent.
Officially they’re still known today as one-cent pieces, but they’re known all over the country as pennies.
The word “penny” goes back centuries.
It has roots in Old English, Middle English, Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old High German, Middle Dutch, Danish… the list goes on and on.
In some cases, penny was a word that could be used to describe any coin of any value, but most of the time, it’s been used to describe coins worth relatively smaller amounts.
They weren’t necessarily smaller coins, though.
The 1793 one-cent piece has been called the “large cent” because it’s about the size of the modern half-dollar.
The original version has a long-haired Lady Liberty on one side.
On the other, a design inspired by Benjamin Franklin shows a chain with 15 links making a loop.
The links were supposed to represent the unbreakable bonds between the states, but critics weren’t excited about having chains on the coins of a newly free country.
They also complained that the Liberty figure looked frightened.
So the design was revised almost immediately, which meant that coins that weren’t well loved in their time have, ironically, become collectors items in this time.
As for the most well known penny design, that started in 1909.
The U.S. put Abraham Lincoln on the one-cent piece to mark 100 years since his birthday.
He was the first actual person to appear on a U.S. coin.
And unlike that Liberty figure, he didn’t look nervous at all.
In Falls Church, Virginia, between two office buildings, there’s a sculpture of a fighter jet that’s covered in around 14,000 pennies.
Most of those coins were glued in place showing heads up, but near the rear of the plane, they show tails.
History of the Penny (Modern Coin Mart)
It’s a penny! It’s a plane! It’s a quirky sculpture behind a Virginia office building! (Washington Post)
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Photo by slgckgc via Flickr/Creative Commons