I got this 1944 “wheat back” Lincoln penny in change today from Starbucks (called a Wheat back because the coins designer, Victor D Brenner decided that the first regular circulation US coin to have the depiction of an actual person as opposed to allegorical figure should have 2 stalks of wheat on its reverse, a situation that lasted until 1959 when the image was replaced with one of the Lincoln memorial)….and receiving such an old coin in circulation gets my imagination running wild. Has this coin been in constant circulation for the duration…for 68 years…serving the continuum of capitalism from tanking up a ‘38 Plymouth with wartime rationed gasoline to maybe buying a knick knack at the 1964 NY World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens…or maybe even buying the oak tag for an anti-war protest sign during the Vietnam war (it always fascinates me that the tools of one system could also be an undermining force for that very system like how the swing of a hammer on a nail can build a home yet the same swing into a misplaced hand could inadvertently end a hapless carpenters career)…..the mind boggles with possibilities!! And, has it truly been in circulation all these years or did it find some respite, some safe harbor for years or even decades at a time in some persons forgotten closeted coat pocket or maybe even a child’s penny collection that eventually was parted out by an older, more age beaten down version of that rambunctious youth who saw the folly of his horde and eventually learned that his treasure was still just worth a penny, and not even a penny of 1944 which could have purchased a sizable piece of candy on its own but sadly can purchase nothing today, even in league with several of it’s copper brothers…It’s also great irony that while it’s front and back images wear away over the years, that it’s buying power also wanes concurrently due to economic forces…change is constant on every level of existence!!
I do believe that, judging on the level of wear, that this small tender disk (yes, coneheads – I like making obscure, and not-so obscure cultural references) representation of our slain 16th president must have has some “time-outs” over the years…hopefully in the aforementioned child’s collection so for at least a while, it transcended it’s original value as just being a means to transact business in an ever dwindling chorus of a buying power to being a cherished possession…something to be kept in a special place and viewed upon with pride and even unabashed naive awe…a very special time in the life of this small humble bit of metal.
I know a little about coins… I have a very modest “type” collection…several representations of some of the nominal examples coined by the US mint since its inception some 220 years. Most in my small “gathering”are 20th century issues with a few late 19th century examples, but I do have a large cent (before 1859, Pennies were much larger, bigger than a quarter but not the size of a half dollar and mostly all copper as opposed to the zinc alloy metal they used today) from 1798…It’s very worn and you can hardly make out the date and the image of a young woman in flowing garments and long tousled hair, the representation of liberty 88 years before the French indelibly created an archetype of that concept for time ever more in the harbor of NYC, but wow, if the faded post-colonial lady on my coin could only talk!!! I mean, this coin was minted when one of the founding fathers, John Adams was President…George Washington was still alive…the nation did not stretch much father than the Alleganies….what amazing tales could she spin?? Was she used to buy a farmer seeds for his land ? A drunkard rum for his damaged soul? A slave for a white man’s “toil”? An aboriginal person’s black gun powder to be used to repel an invading forces lies and fake treaties? This could go on for hours!! Just holding it in my hand (a no-no as most coin “purists” would tell you as they lock pristine examples away in the sealed plastic cases of the national grading companies who turn these miniature museums into commodities, safely tucked away, silent and frustrated, in bank vaults….but I digress) makes my mind float away and see all of the 214 years of greatness and badness this nation propagated on the North American continent; the best of man’s intentions & the worst of his executions , the brilliance of his intellect and endeavor and the folly of his fears and superstitious all at once…it’s a little overwhelming I must say!! So many people in our great nation can’t tell you what happened last week let alone last century…history becomes as fleeting and ephemeral as a sneeze in a rainstorm… But the ones who waltz through life with blinders and ear buds on don’t realize the amazing tales and legacies they are denying themselves as well as a clear understanding as to why things both good and bad happen right now….history is just an prologue to the present and a barometer for the future…and maybe just looking in your pocket change once in a while can reconnect you to all if this if you’re lucky to encounter one of these small numismatic windows into our past…and maybe that’s just one persons two cents!
Instead of placing this small find in a glass jar or an album, I just plopped it back into my pocket and sent it on it’s merry way, to continue it’s journey of settling transactions and maybe fascinating yet another person with it’s mere presence in their change…