“A penny saved is twopence dear,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. This aphorism is frequently misquoted as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” but the original version is much more informative as to the history of the penny. The term is English in origin, dating to the Dark Ages (cf. the German equivalent, pfennig). Its value was eventually standardized at 1/240th of a pound sterling under that currency’s pre-decimalization system. The US cent had a similar value at the time of its introduction.
Even before the establishment of the US Constitution (and subsequently, the US Mint), the Congress of the Confederation of the United States produced a copper one cent coin, the Fugio cent. Benjamin Franklin himself is reported to have designed the coin. The purpose of the Fugio cent was to unify the currency of the nascent United States and boost an economy suffering from a dearth of circulating small coinage. However, the Fugio cents hardly circulated and these goals were not achieved until after the formal establishment of the US Mint.
Under the Coinage Act of 1792, only gold and silver were legal tender in the United States. The Mint did produce one cent coins from 1793 on – the penny’s first iteration, the “Chain cent,” was the first coin produced by the new US Mint – but the pennies were not technically legal tender coinage. Pennies were used in commerce, but did not have to be accepted by merchants or banks. Worn Spanish silver coins were often more popular. The Mint produced “large cents” (made of copper and about the size of a modern half dollar) in a variety of designs every year from 1793 to 1857, except for 1815, when an embargo during the War of 1812 prevented copper planchets from being delivered from England.
The Mint could produce about 43 large cents from one pound of copper. When the price of copper rose above 40¢/lb in the 1850s, the Mint looked for ways to cut the copper content of the penny. In 1857, the much smaller Flying Eagle cent was introduced. The Treasury permitted the public to exchange old Spanish silver – still circulating throughout the country – for the new “small cents.” Half cents were also discontinued at this time; since then, the penny has been the smallest denomination US coin.
The Flying Eagle design did not strike well and was only produced for a brief time. But its replacement, the Indian Head cent, was produced for all the way into the 20th century. The penny was redesigned again in 1909, during a period when almost all US coin designs were changed. Victor David Brenner’s Lincoln cent honored the 16th President amid the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. This design remains in production through the present day, though the reverse was changed in 1959, 2009, and 2010.
The penny’s composition has also changed throughout its history. The Flying Eagle small cent was made of a copper-nickel alloy, as opposed to 100% copper. Amid the shortages of the Civil War, the Indian Head penny’s composition was changed to bronze (95% copper, with the balance tin and zinc). Wartime shortages again forced changes in 1943, when a zinc-coated steel penny was introduced. This ferrous penny wreaked havoc in vending machines and proved unpopular in commerce, but the Mint came up with a way to recycle shell casings and restore the mostly-copper composition for 1944. Inflation and rising metal prices forced another change, this time to copper-plated zinc – pennies made since 1983 have this composition. The Mint had actually prepared millions of aluminum cents for introduction in 1974, but the plan was scrapped.
Though there have been some initiatives in recent years to eliminate the penny from circulation, it remains the lowest denomination US coin. More than 9 billion pennies were produced in 2015 alone.