Flip Side Of New Penny Features Union Shield

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Robert Wilson Hoge, curator of North American Coins and Currency at the American Numismatic Society, about the redesign of the Lincoln penny. The Union shield, a symbol dating back to the Civil War, is now on the tail side, replacing the Lincoln Memorial. Hoge says that in general, he likes coin redesigns, since they encourage collectors.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Earlier this year, a new penny hit cash registers across America. Abraham Lincoln is still there. But on the reverse side, where were accustomed to seeing the Lincoln Memorial, there is now a shield. When I saw one, for a moment I thought that the Amateur Athletic Union or the Union Pacific Railroad had suddenly minted a coin. But it's actually a Civil War shield.

And joining us now to talk about the new penny is Robert Wilson Hoge, who is curator of North American Coins and Currency for American Numismatic Society. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT WILSON HOGE (Curator, North American Coins and Currency, American Numismatic Society): Thank you. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, what is that shield and what do you think of it?

Mr. HOGE: Well, it's actually technically called the Shield of Union, only it is the Union of States of the United States of America. And it's a very old, traditional symbol, which has appeared on some of our coins and also on many tokens and medals in the past.

But I'd like to point out first of all that in referring to this coin as the penny, we're calling this coin by a misnomer that comes out of the Middle Ages.

SIEGEL: It's a one-cent piece.

Mr. HOGE: A one-cent piece, as indicated on the thing. Curiously, we use that old term because we inherited it from Great Britain back in the 18th century. The U.S. Mint began production of one-cent coins in 1793 and made them in about the size and configuration of the traditional British half-penny, and we've called those things pennies ever since.

SIEGEL: Now, but what do you think about this new design? This shield, it's actually a rather large image for the reverse side of the coin and not much detail there.

Mr. HOGE: Well, that's right. And in comparison with the rather detailed and fine workmanship on something like the Lincoln Memorial or even on the old traditional wheat-ears reverse coins that were found on Lincoln cents earlier, it's a kind of thing that is probably a little bit easier to keep in adjustment and not as much work to produce the dyes for this.

SIEGEL: Why do we need a one-cent piece, I'll oblige you, at all? That is, these things, these coins possess so little value that stores let you take one or leave one. We mint millions of them every year. I gather the vast majority of coins in circulation are pennies, and the government has to buy a lot of zinc to make them. Why bother?

Mr. HOGE: I don't really have a good answer because these are being produced at taxpayer expense. It's costing more to make the cent than it's really worth in terms of its buying power.

SIEGEL: It's 1.7 cents to make a penny, I gather.

Mr. HOGE: Isn't that weird? It's like a government subsidy for mining and manufacturing interests, I guess. (Unintelligible) government subsidies.

SIEGEL: And it's overwhelmingly zinc with a little copper coating on it.

Mr. HOGE: Yes, yes.

SIEGEL: And I should say that a Canadian parliamentarian just this week has proposed that Canada do away with its penny. But these little coins seem to hang on for some reason.

Mr. HOGE: They do, and part of it is really perhaps just this sort of nostalgia, just in the way that we refer to them as pennies, something, you know, out of our past that we're so accustomed to.

But the one-cent coins, now I don't know about you, but when I see one lying on the ground, I do pick it up. But many people don't seem to. I see them lying around.

SIEGEL: Yes, the penny often fails the test of: Is it worth anyone's while to pick it up off the ground?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And many people find not so, unless you keep a jar of them at home somewhere.

Mr. HOGE: And most people do, though. So perhaps that is the inducement for some people like me. Of course, then I always figure that it's going to be good for my health and my waistline to bend over and give myself a little bit of exercise, one cents worth, at least.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Hoge, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Mr. HOGE: Thank you very much, Robert. It's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Robert Wilson Hoge, speaking to us from New York, where he works as curator of North American Coins and Currency at the American Numismatic Society.

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