Pennies are the worst. I stopped carrying those around about twenty years ago. I put them in an old (empty) half-gallon scotch bottle. I still have one or two sitting around (they make great door stops). The US Mint has finally stopped producing them earlier this year; after all, they cost over two cents each to produce, so it was a bit ridiculous. With the latest revival of inflation, the days of nickels and dimes will likely be over pretty soon. The efforts to promote dollar coins won’t ever come to fruition; coins will soon be a thing of the past; swept away by inflation, weight, and the seemingly inexorable tide of electronic money. So much for the old Westerns in which a grizzled cowboy would bite a coin to see if it was legit.
My favorite historical tidbit about coins has to do, of course, with Sir Isaac Newton. After the small matters of discovering gravity, clarifying optics, and (co-) inventing calculus, Newton went on to something really crucial. In the 1690s he was made Master of the Mint, in charge of English coinage. There he developed the idea of the ridges on the rim of the coin (most noticeable to us now on the US quarter) in order to complicate counterfeiting and make evident any snipping off of a little bit of the outer edge of a coin (flakes of silver could really add up).
People took coins seriously back then and had for hundreds of years. They were a convenient means of carrying easily useable and reasonably reliable value. Coins were first used in China about 3000 years ago and used in many Greek and SW Asian cultures for well over 2000 years. Coinage was a central part of what newly-constructed European states did in the early modern period. Even after paper money was developed (China in the 11C, Europe in the 13C), coins remained far more important until the 19C.
As evidenced by the continuing market for gold, what people decide is “valuable” is entirely a social/cultural phenomenon. Millennia of use have given coins a lot of weight (sorry) in this regard. The gradual shift to paper currency was attended by lots of arguments over whether a piece of paper with some words printed on it could be ever be worth anything. In theory, at least until the 19C (and later 20C in some cases), the theory was that the piece of paper was just a convenience since it represented an actual chunk of gold or silver sitting in Ft. Knox (or its equivalent location). Current currency foregoes that illusion. Money is now just our shared belief in the continued existence of our government (i.e., our society). Money is worth something merely because we all agree that it is worth something and the government has told us so. The money says: “In God We Trust;” but actually it’s more like “In Biden/Trump/Obama/Bush… We Trust.”
We used to rely on something tangible (bite-able?), then something nicely printed. Now we don’t even see money at all. Credit/debit cards and automatic billing/payment/deposit have made it so that we don’t really pay attention to money on a day-to-day basis. We check our bank balance as frequently as our economic situation requires. Now, electronic payments have made things even faster/easier/ more invisible: swipe/dip/tap and you’re done; no need for a paper receipt. Automatic payment plans cover much of our regular expenses. I get an email notification and make sure there’s enough in the bank account and I’m done. I might write about one check a month; and grumble when I do so. All the payment processors are rolling out facial recognition payments so you can merely look at the cashier and pay for your groceries. Except for the fraud and the fees, it’s all seamless. If (when?) the internet goes out, however, we will have to revert to scrip and a lot of ordinary commerce will grind to a halt.
As a boy, I collected coins. I have stashed away somewhere, a pretty solid collection of pennies and quarters up through the 1970s. My brother collected nickels and dimes (my parent’s way of keeping us in friendly—if indirect—competition). My collection isn’t worth all that much, its retention is more a matter of storage inertia and a fear of finding out that all that youthful excitement didn’t produce any miraculous discoveries of value. I should probably bite the bullet (or the quarter) and take it to a coin store and get my few hundred bucks. Still, there is some (illusory?) remnant of value and solidity that keeps me attached to my collection.
Karl Marx, in describing modernity in the mid 19C, said “All that is solid, melts into air.” It’s nowhere more true than in the case of money. Gold and silver coins haven’t exactly melted, but have all but vanished. Even the copper-plated zinc slug that has passed for a penny for the past few decades is leaving us. Soon money will just be a wink at a waiter and electrons will do the rest.