»  National Review Online

July 31st, 2006

  Penny for Your Thoughts


The high prices charged for trifles were eloquent of high freights and bewildering distances of freightage. In the east, in those days, the smallest moneyed denomination was a penny and it represented the smallest purchasable quantity of any commodity. West of Cincinnati the smallest coin in use was the silver five-cent piece and no smaller quantity of an article could be bought than "five cents' worth." In Overland City the lowest coin appeared to be the ten-cent piece; but in Salt Lake there did not seem to be any money in circulation smaller than a quarter, or any smaller quantity purchasable of any commodity than twenty-five cents' worth. We had always been used to half dimes and "five cents' worth" as the minimum of financial negotiations; but in Salt Lake if one wanted a cigar, it was a quarter; if he wanted a chalk pipe, it was a quarter; if he wanted a peach, or a candle, or a newspaper, or a shave, or a little Gentile whiskey to rub on his corns to arrest indigestion and keep him from having the toothache, twenty-five cents was the price, every time. When we looked at the shot-bag of silver, now and then, we seemed to be wasting our substance in riotous living, but if we referred to the expense account we could see that we had not been doing anything of the kind.
                     — Mark Twain, Roughing It, Ch. XVII

A National Review colleague, who in my opinion should darn well be ashamed of himself, recently suggested we should get rid of the penny. The reasons he gave were … German. I mean, they were to do with efficiency and reason, briskness and social hygiene, clearing away the clutter and lumber of life, sweeping away all that is old and useless. I'm surprised my colleague didn't write the shameful piece in Esperanto, or one of those "improved" spelling systems favored by Edwardian meliorists like George Bernard Shaw.

Yes, we luv Aybruham Linkun. We luv owr memuriz uv bying kandy with penniz wen we wer childrun. But nun uv that shud be enuf enymor tu inflict thuh penny on adults atempting tu konduct kash tranzakshuns in an effishunt way …

The notion of sweeping away what is old and useless makes me uncomfortable, for personal reasons into which I'd prefer not to go. It ought to make any conservative uncomfortable, though, even an American conservative. I say "even" in deference to British journalists Micklethwait and Wooldridge's The Right Nation, in which, after laying out the six principles of Burkean coservatism thus:

the authors explain that "the exceptionalism of modern American conservatism lies in its exaggeration of the first three of Burke's principles and contradiction of the last three." Since the penny is, to stretch the meaning of words just a little, an "established institution," belief in it ought to be one of those things we thrusting, forward-looking Americo-cons are willing to jettison.

In fact Micklethwait and Wooldridge's crisp little formula needs some qualification. (To be fair to them, they tell us they are simplifying "a little.") In many respects, the U.S.A. is more profoundly and doggedly conservative than the Mother Country. This is especially the case with weights and measures, units and coinage.

In my lifetime the Old Country has changed from Fahrenheit to Centigrade (and then to something called "Celsius" — don't ask me — stick around a few years and they'll switch to Réaumur, I wouldn't be surprised); from pounds, shillings, and pence to pounds and pee; from gallons to liters; and from yards to meters. The U.S.A., across all those years, has stuck faithfully to Fahrenheit degrees, imperial (!) units of measure, and dollars and cents. God bless America! This is truly the land of conservatism, a conservatism that extends well into Burke's Fourth Principle, and pish! to Messrs. Micklethwait and Wooldridge.

I left England for the first time in 1971, the year that country switched from the ancient pounds, shillings, and pence system, to decimal coinage. I thought at the time that I was embarking on my travels from sheer curiosity. In fact, I now believe, my inner conservative was fleeing from an abominable and purposeless innovation.

It was an innovation in which I had myself played a small part. I had taken up work as a computer programmer in 1969, under the old pounds-shillings-pence dispensation, known familiarly as "Lsd." (Nothing to do with mind-expanding drugs: "Lsd" stood for libra, solidus, denarius, the Latin equivalents of the pound, the shilling, and the penny.) Lsd was fun to program. There went twelve pennies to the shilling, so computer printers needed single characters for 10 and 11. Since computers think in hexadecimal, this was no stretch for programmers. Shillings, however, were twenty to a pound, so hexadecimal couldn't cope, and the shillings position had to be two-digit, with leading zero suppressed (so that 6 shillings didn't print as 06 shillings). However, when there were pounds and pence but no shillings, you had to suppress leading-zero suppression, so that two pounds, no shillings, and eight pence printed at "£2 0s. 8d," not as "£2  s. 8d." But then, if neither pounds nor shillings were present, the suppression of zero suppression had to be suppressed: "6d," not "0s. 6d." I tell you, this was fun programming. This is not even to mention the halfpenny, still legal currency at the time, still to be coded for. What fun we had!

Then came decimal currency, and we mainframe grunts had a work bonanza the like of which did not come again until the Y2K scare. Every company, every bank, every government office in the U.K. had to be converted. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive — to be young was very heaven! I made a modest bundle on contract work, and took off on my travels.

Looking back, I regret having had anything to do with the whole disgraceful episode. Lsd was an ancient and noble currency. It was a cultural crime to abolish it. All the strange, knotty convolutions of that beloved old system were swept away. (Did I mention guineas? A guinea was 21 shillings, i.e. one pound and one shilling, £1 1s. 0d.  Certain items — furniture, gentlemen's suits and ladies' dresses, professional fees — were priced in guineas. Quick now: What is thirty-nine and a half guineas in pounds, shillings, and pence?) In their place came a sterile, featureless continental system, one hundred nondescript pennies to the humdrum pound, and that was that.

The physical currency all changed, too: No more ten-bob (i.e. ten shillings) notes. No more of the wonderful old five-pound note — printed in black on white, and the size of a bed sheet. All the paper money turned into Ruritanian picture bills in cutesy colors. Great Britain had re-branded herself as Little England.

The actual coins all changed too, of course. Farewell to the half crown (colloquially known as "half a dollar" and heavy enough to knock you out if thrown), the florin, the sixpence, and the threepenny bit. The noble penny, whose origins went all the way back into the Dark Ages, was no longer welcome in England. That was the real heart-breaker.

The old penny was the very heart and soul of Britannia — who, with shield and trident, actually appeared on it. You could read off the history of the nation in those pennies. Queen Victoria pennies were quite common, both the Young Head and the Old Head. I used to collect them in a small porcelain piggy bank, which eventually filled up. My great prize was a penny from one of the Georges — the Fourth, I suppose.*  This, like the Victorias, came to me in the ordinary way, with change. It was very romantic to imagine the life stories of these worn, darkened time travelers, intruders into the gleaming, modern 1950s, the age of Stratocruisers and Sputniks, TV and long-playing records, from that other age, the age of gaslight, steam power, and child labor, of Jack the Ripper and Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the charge of the Light Brigade. I spun many a yarn to myself, along the lines of those 18th-century "Tale of a Guinea" whimsies.

(Though my experiences in mid-20th-century England were as nothing by comparison with one that H.E.M. James recorded when traveling in northeast China seventy years earlier. At that time the ordinary unit of currency in the Chinese empire consisted of fifty small copper coins, each having a square hole in the middle, all threaded together on a loop of string. Examining one of theses strings of cash he'd acquired in some transaction, James found that among the coins was one from the Sung dynasty, which had ended over 600 years before.)

No, you can have my pennies when you prise them from my cold dead fingers. Now here is my favorite penny story.

The eccentric and shifty American psychologist William Sheldon, the guy who popularized the terms "ectomorph,"  "mesomorph,"  and "endomorph," was also an expert on the American penny. He was, in fact, such an expert that in 1954 the American Numismatic Society, to help him in writing a book, allowed him access to the Clapp collection of historic American pennies. Many years later, long after Sheldon had died (having sold his collections), a careful study of the Clapp collection confirmed what the custodians had long suspected: Sheldon had switched some of the pennies, substituting his own lower-quality coins for 129 of the best Clapp items. Lawsuits followed. The latest news I can find says that the Clapp collection has recovered around half of the switched pieces.

* Old Victorian ditty:

George the First was always reckoned
Vile; but viler, George the Second.
No one ever said or heard
A decent thing of George the Third.
When to heaven the Fourth ascended,
God be praised! — The Georges ended.