Yesterday I was given a buffalo nickel in a handful of change. Of all things! A buffalo nickel! These were minted between 1913 and 1938, and though the date on mine has been completely worn away, meaning I’ll never know when it was struck, I do know that it was certainly no later than 1938 — at which time, apparently, a nickel would have bought you a jumbo loaf of sliced bread (at a time when being able to afford a jumbo loaf of anything was hardly a foregone conclusion).
Anyway – I have some pretty powerful feelings about old coins! And I wrote about them once. Hereunder, that post.
A PENNY FOR YOUR HALF A CABBAGE
I have this odd little habit. It’s harmless, but also seemingly pointless. Every once and a while I stop and wonder: Why is that again? I collect what are known as wheat head pennies.
And when I say “collect,” I mean rather as the girl collects the sticks to all the lolly pops she’s every had — there’s no real organization to it, certainly no rarefied treatment afforded, and I don’t really imagine that I’ll be doing anything with them in the future. I just like having them.
The wheat head penny, you see, was discontinued in 1959, when the wreath of wheat was replaced with an image of the Lincoln Memorial. If I hold a wheat head penny in my hand, it was first in someone’s pocket at least five years before I was born.
My collection is small — only 16, so far — the oldest minted in 1924, most in the 1950s. The boy knows to keep an eye out for them. If, for instance, we see-a-penny-and-pick-it-up-and-all-the-day-you’ll-have-good-luck, we take a good look to make sure it isn’t super old. I don’t much like how they smell — pennies were bronze in those years — and if I hold them for too long, my hands will stink for the rest of the day.
But holding them is kind of what I like the most.
These pennies made a real difference in real people’s lives. In the 1920s, you could get a pound of cabbage or watermelon with just two of them, and in 1932, a pound of wieners cost eight (meaning, if the 1932 wieners were roughly the same size as the wieners currently in my freezer, you could get two for just one of my pennies).
If I were to hop into my time machine with the sixteen wheat heads currently in my possession and head for 1946, I would be able to buy a dozen doughnuts, with one penny left as a souvenir (but of course I wouldn’t collect any more while there, because: Prime Directive). By the time the wheat head was discontinued, each individual penny carried a bit less of a wallop, but hey: With only 10, you could buy a Jiffy cake mix for your end-of-decade bash!
I like to think of the kids who were given these pennies in their stockings, about the woman who dropped them into coin purses or coffee cans in kitchen cupboards — real money, money that you counted and horded and made important decisions with. Something simple and daily that passed through hands and pockets and tills without number, until they came to find me, and I put them in my pocket, and then into a little bag, in a little box, on my dresser.
The day will come, I imagine, that my children will have to decide what to do with them. (“Do you want Mom’s pennies?” “Why’d she collect these again?” “I don’t know…”). I’d like to say I hope they feel free to get rid of them, but honestly? I hope they don’t. Maybe they’ll split the collection between them, or share with their own kids.
Of all the many objects we gather in an effort to preserve our history, it’s these sorts of things that I love the most — the little things. The things that people actually touched and used, carried with them into their day. I imagine some of my wheat heads have sad stories to tell as well: The boy who couldn’t buy the longed-for movie ticket, because my 1927 penny rolled under his bureau and he couldn’t see it. Or the tired waitress met by a surly customer, who thought leaving a one-penny tip might be funny. It’s not all piggy-banks and coffee cans when you’re a penny.
But that’s real, too. I like feeling that somehow, even without knowing the potentially millions of stories each of these coins could tell, I am still holding those stories safe, and — somehow — remembering.