Good Cents

Good Cents The Lincoln penny has a new verso, only the third since its introduction in 1909. I made a line-up of our legal tender and was surprised by what I saw; a brief history of the American economy as writ by the U.S. Mint.

The original wheat penny was designed by Victor David Brenner on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of our nations sixteenth president and depicts Lincoln on the face side, and two stalks of durum wheat framing the dictum "E pluribus unum" on the tail side.

For 50 years, the wheat penny commemorated the agrarian economy as the center of the American experience; the stalks of wheat summon the spirit of the heartland, the hard working farmer, and a livelihood bound to the land so celebrated in Katharine Lee Bates's patriot song "America the Beautiful".

On the occasion of Lincoln's 150th anniversary in 1959, the wheat ears were replaced by a new symbol of power; the Lincoln Memorial.

Dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was designed by Henry Bacon in the style of an ancient Greek temple, whose mathematical harmony became the architectural representation for the purity-of-democracy and power-of-justice as epitomized by the Parthenon. But for this new penny, the flip side illustrates a philosophical transition from the wealth of the land to that of Empire, which has been in circulation for the last 50 years.

The newest Lincoln penny features a shield; protective armor used during battle, and transforms the 36 Doric columns of democracy from Lincoln's Memorial, into 13 vertical stripes from the American flag, the original 13 states on "old glory", which Francis Scott Keys described as withstanding defeat and holding proud during the battle of Fort McHenry in 1814 despite "the rockets' red glare," and "the bombs bursting in air". What remains of the Greek architectural pediment, is reshaped to become the three-pointed tip of the shield which now carries the de facto Latin motto "E pluribus unum", before which floats an unfurled banner - one cent.

Although the penny is the most often discarded coin, and the joke goes it cost more than a cent to make one (it's true, a penny costs 1.62 cents to make and the federal government loses and annual $22 million on minting them and it's been said that one retail store loses as much as $1.6 million just counting them) perhaps we should reconsider the value of the penny.

From "amber waves of grain" to "the home of the brave", from a wheat economy to an economy of empire to military economy. The evolution of the Lincoln penny charts the evolution of America's national character, our spirit, our belief system, our pattern language.

How long with this new image represent our US economic values, if the penny remains with us at all?  Will it be replaced by a new symbol?  May I suggest the tree, for the permaculture future? Perhaps wind turbine, and renewable resource economy?


  • William Lasseter

    I like the tree. Neat idea. Thanks for the history and analysis.

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