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6 valuable facts about the U.S. penny

What pennies lack in purchasing power, they make up for in history. Long before the U.S. was even founded, variations of the word “penny” were commonly used for European currency of various denominations, including pfennig in German and penning in Swedish. (The American use of the word “penny” came from the British term for one-twelfth of a shilling.) It was in 1793 that the U.S. Mint finally struck its first penny — though its official name is the “one-cent piece” — which means that pennies have been jangling around in the pockets of Americans since the Washington administration. From design alterations to record-shattering values, here are some remarkable facts about the history (and more) of the smallest current monetary denomination in the U.S.

Benjamin Franklin designed the first one

What pennies lack in purchasing power, they make up for in history. Long before the U.S. was even founded, variations of the word “penny” were commonly used for European currency of various denominations, including pfennig in German and penning in Swedish. (The American use of the word “penny” came from the British term for one-twelfth of a shilling.) It was in 1793 that the U.S. Mint finally struck its first penny — though its official name is the “one-cent piece” — which means that pennies have been jangling around in the pockets of Americans since the Washington administration. From design alterations to record-shattering values, here are some remarkable facts about the history (and more) of the smallest current monetary denomination in the U.S.

Lincoln was the first real person to appear on a U.S. coin

Speaking of redesigns, it was in 1909 that the penny underwent a visual change that remains constant to this day. From 1859 to 1909, the U.S. penny depicted the silhouette of a fictitious Native American person. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday by changing the coin’s design to feature Lincoln’s face — making Lincoln the first real person to appear on U.S. coinage. To create the design, Roosevelt enlisted the acclaimed medalist Victor David Brenner, who designed the portrait of Lincoln that now appears on all pennies. George Washington would later appear on the quarter, beginning in 1932; Thomas Jefferson was added to the face of the nickel in 1938; and FDR showed up on dimes beginning in 1946.

Pennies cost more to make than they’re worth

Despite their storied history, pennies may not be around for much longer, due to the fact that they’re so expensive to make. The manufacturing cost for a penny is more than double its value — in 2021, each penny cost 2.1 cents to strike. That same year, the government produced 7.6 billion pennies, equating to a financial loss of $145.8 million. Part of the reason for this financial conundrum is that pennies are composed of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper, two metals that have recently dramatically risen in price. Several movementshave begun in support of eliminating the coin from circulation, which is something America’s neighbors to the north chose to do with their own penny all the way back in 2012.

The most valuable penny sold for $1.7 million

Not all pennies are massive money drains. In fact, one penny sold at auction in 2010 for a whopping $1.7 million. The one-of-a-kind coin was accidentally struck in 1943, using a leftover bronze coin disc from 1942 at a time when the government was experimenting with other materials so they could preserve copper for wartime efforts in World War II. The auctioned coin is the only one known to have been mistakenly cast in bronze at the Denver Mint, making it exceedingly rare, though an additional 20 Lincoln pennies were believed to have been struck in bronze at the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints. Throughout World War II, zinc-coated steel was ultimately used for pennies as part of the aforementioned conservation efforts.

The penny isn’t the lowest value U.S. coin ever made

Not all pennies are massive money drains. In fact, one penny sold at auction in 2010 for a whopping $1.7 million. The one-of-a-kind coin was accidentally struck in 1943, using a leftover bronze coin disc from 1942 at a time when the government was experimenting with other materials so they could preserve copper for wartime efforts in World War II. The auctioned coin is the only one known to have been mistakenly cast in bronze at the Denver Mint, making it exceedingly rare, though an additional 20 Lincoln pennies were believed to have been struck in bronze at the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints. Throughout World War II, zinc-coated steel was ultimately used for pennies as part of the aforementioned conservation efforts.

Pressed penny collectors are known as Exonumists

Exonumia are tokens and other items that resemble money but aren’t meant to be used in circulation. One of the more popular hobbies related to exonumia is the collection of elongated or pressed pennies, the concept of which made its stateside debut at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Though the inventor of the machine remains a mystery, more than two dozen designs were presented at the fair. Pressed pennies can now be found at festivals and amusement parks around the country, including at Disneyland, where you can press over 150 collectible designs onto your penny. While pressing pennies is perfectly legal in the United States, the act is actually forbidden in Canada, because the Canadian Currency Actforbids using coins for any purpose other than currency. (Although penny-pressing machines do exist in Canada, at least some use a zinc American penny instead of a Canadian coin.

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