Home > U.S. History > 19th Century America > What do April 1, a sundial and Benjamin Franklin all have in common?

What do April 1, a sundial and Benjamin Franklin all have in common?

Answer: The Penny

April first is not just April Fools day, its also National One Cent Day and the penny can trace its lineage to one of America’s favorite founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin designed the first United States one cent coin minted in 1787.

Fugio One Cent Coin

Fugio One Cent Coin

Franklin’s coin was much larger than today’s penny, nearly the size of a half-dollar.  At that time, people expected coins to contain close to their face value in metal. The first official one cent coin has become known as the Fugio Cent to coin collector’s in reference to the Latin phrase “Fugio” (Latin: I flee/fly) engraved on the reverse side of the coin along with the images of a sun shining down on a sun dial. Beneath the sundial appeared the phrase, “Mind Your Business.” The image and the words form a rebus meaning that “time flies, do your work.”

The reverse side of the coin featured a chain of 13 links, each representing one of the original thirteen colonies. Inside the circle chain was engraved the motto “We Are One”. Gold and silver coins transitioned to the motto “E pluribus unum” (Latin: Out of Many, One) from the Great Seal of the United States.

Flying Eagle Penny

Flying Eagle Penny

By the 1850s, the United States Treasury was looking to reduce the size and composition of the one-cent coin to make it easier to handle and more economical to mint. In 1857 the United States Government introduced the Flying Eagle cent. This was the first one cent coin minted in the exact diameter of the modern penny you have in your pocket. Although somewhat thicker and heavier, the Flying Eagle was also the first penny composed of copper and nickel.

Indian Head Penny

Indian Head Penny

The design changed again in 1859 portraying the Goddess of Liberty wearing an Indian headdress. The Indian head penny remained in circulation until 1909 when it was replaced by the image of President Lincoln issued for the 100th anniversary of the assassinated president’s birth and still graces the face of the one cent coin. Today’s penny is made of copper and zinc and the Union Shield is engraved on the reverse side replacing the Lincoln Memorial which had been there since 1959.

Although pennies may be the smallest denomination of United States currency, they’ve had a huge impact on American expressions concerning both saving and spending money. Some of the oldest sayings use the word “penny” as a way of identifying a minimal amount, low-cost  or limited value.

saving penniesThe proverb “a penny spar’d is twice got” encourages frugality. By declining to spend a penny and to save one’s money instead, you are a penny up rather than a penny down, hence ‘twice got’. “A penny saved is a penny earned” is another thrifty axiom often falsely attributed to Benjamin Franklin. First published in Pall Mall magazine in 1899, the maxim implies that even small bits of money are important though many people don’t think a penny is really worth saving.

If you’re experiencing a bad turn of events, then you might find yourself “without two pennies to rub together.” This expression is often muttered by those who tend to spend their money as soon as they get it. Thus, they never seem to have any cash in their pocket.

pennypincher

Here are some other common English phrases using the word penny:

Penny Pincher: a bargain hunter or someone who is always trying to get a good deal

Pretty Penny: an expression used to describe an expensive or extravagant item

Penny wise and pound foolish: someone who watches small expenditures while making unwise investments or squanders money on frivolous expensive purchases

In for a penny, in for a pound: when a good opportunity finally comes your way  you’re willing to risk whatever you have in the venture

Penny Dreadfuls: serial stories printed on cheap pulp paper selling for one cent per issue

Penny ante poker: a poker game between players not willing to risk much cash

Although I can’t afford to give each of you “a penny for your thoughts,” I hope you have a little more respect for the smallest coin in your wallet.

2 Comments, RSS

  • Angela Couch

    says on:
    April 1, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    It makes me sad, but Canada recently discontinued our penny. (Ours looked similar, but with the Queen and a maple leaf instead). So now I would have to round to the nearest five and offer you a nickel for your thoughts. 😉 Great post!

    • romancinghistory

      says on:
      April 1, 2016 at 11:20 pm

      Wow, Angela, I hadn’t heard about the discontinued penny? How does that work? All prices set on the fives I guess? I loved the maple leaf on the back–truly Canadian! Thanks for stopping by!