Common sense hardly applied to cents

Americans resist changes despite practical reasons

March 09, 2003|By James Bernstein | James Bernstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Americans love change, but not in their pocket change.

While other countries around the world in recent years have discarded small-denomination coins and replaced some paper money with new coins, the United States has resisted.

Americans have failed to take dollar coins to their hearts or wallets, for that matter, and continue to let pennies pile up, even though it costs as much to make one coin as it's worth.

Recently, even a move to tamper with the appearance of the nickel caused a minor uproar that prompted congressional action.

"Coins have been around since the time of Croesus," David Ganz, a former president of the country's largest coin-collectors' society, the American Numismatic Association, said recently, referring to the king of Lydia known for his great wealth. "And they'll continue to be around," in the United States at least.

What's more, they'll likely look largely the same as they do now.

Scott Travers, author of The One Minute Coin Expert: How to Make a Fortune from Your Pocket Change, said Americans care passionately about preserving their coins as they evoke "patriotism and a sense of history."

The quarter is considered the workhorse of American coins, experts say. For years they have been used to feed pay telephones, parking meters, laundry and vending machines, and other pay services. While the quarter has had the image of George Washington since 1932, a popular addition to the supply was the U.S. Mint's issuing coins in 1999 carrying images reflecting the symbolic designs of each of the 50 states.

In many countries, some coins and even notes have become almost worthless as inflation and global economic forces effect currency value. One option has been to discard coins with the equivalent value of one or two cents.

In the United States that could - despite opposition to change - become policy in coming years.

Some in the coin world say the Lincoln penny may be phased out in the next 20 years, given that it costs almost as much to produce a penny as a penny is worth.

But the nickel, which was first issued in 1866 and replaced the 3-cent coin, is safe, most experts believe. Even a proposed change last fall to the nickel caused an unexpected backlash.

The mint wanted to replace the image of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home, with etchings of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark expedition on the nickel, but Virginia lawmakers led a roar of disapproval.

Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican, sponsored a bill that not only blocked the mint's proposal, but developed a bipartisan compromise that the House approved last month. The mint will be allowed to place new images honoring the Louisiana Purchase and the 1804 to 1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, on separate designs. But, the House bill also says Monticello will return in 2006.

Americans clearly will go to great lengths to preserve their traditional coins. And with equal fervor, Americans reject the new.

Consider the dollar coins - the Susan B. Anthony and the Sacajawea. Those coins never caught on with the public.

Nevertheless, it seems the public does embrace occasional coin issues.

"You're going to see more designs," said Ganz, a Manhattan attorney. Ganz said he has proposed a coin design to remember those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"If you think about it, what are coins but American history, American politics and American government?" Ganz said.

James Bernstein writes for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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