It is hardly worth the effort of stooping over to pick them up – except for the all-day good luck – but let us take a moment to pay homage to the penny.
The striking of the final one-cent coin will take place on Friday when the last maple leaf is pressed into copper plating at the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg.
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty – the man who is ultimately responsible for the penny’s demise – will be on hand for the occasion. So will the president of the Mint. Saying goodbye to the coins that bought two pieces of bubblegum 50 years ago, but are now worth less than the cost of their production, is apparently a pretty big deal.
Not that they are going to vanish out of our pockets and our purses overnight. Pennies will officially go out of circulation in the fall, but will remain legal tender and will continue to be used. That means Canadians can continue to spend them even though the Mint will eventually stop delivering them to the banks.
But Friday marks the beginning of the end of the coins that once filled UNICEF boxes, made dashing additions to penny loafers, and could set fortune-telling machines in motion.
The Mint has produced a lot of coins in its day – more than 55 billion of them since 1908 when the first coins were struck in Canada. More pennies have been made in this country (approximately 35 billion) than all the other coins put together. Why? Because people don’t spend them, they hoard them.
“Here’s what happens to pennies today,” says Robert Kokotailo of the Calgary Coin Gallery. “The government mints them. They are shipped to the banks. From the banks they are given to merchants. Merchants hand them out as change. People that get them go home and throw them in a jar.”
So, when a penny costs a penny and half to produce, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Mint to keep pumping them out and for taxpayers to keep paying for them. And, to most Canadians, they are unnecessary clutter, brown metal disks that roll under car seats and accumulate beneath couch cushions.
But, to some people, pennies are still something special. They are the most collected coin in Canada precisely because they are so abundant and worth so little. They are the “gateway” currency for numismatists.
Mr. Kokotailo’s fascination with coins started with a penny – though he will tell you it is really called a one-cent piece. “I was probably six years old or seven years old and pennies were accessible to me. I couldn’t afford nickels. It was a different world then,” he explained.
It wasn’t the penny itself that was intriguing, he said. It was the fact that each one has a date and some of them go back a long way. As does the design. The form of the two maple leaves on a common twig which still adorn the modern penny was created in 1937 by G.E. Kruger Gray.
Some of Mr. Kokotailo’s customers still collect pennies exclusively. Rare varieties are extremely valuable. And when the government announced in the March budget that they would be discontinued, there was some lament among coin collectors.
But pennies most are worth, well, a penny. Which is why the vast majority of coin collectors move on to larger denominations. Including Mr. Kokotailo who, like most people, has “a huge jar of them somewhere.”
Editor's note: 55 billion coins have been struck since 1908. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.