​Making sense of pennies

The year was 1793. The nation was small, and the pennies were big. The first penny produced, known as the Flowing Hair Penny, was twice as large as today's penny. And those 1793 pennies were minted in controversy.

"People thought her hair was too wild," Matthew Wittman, assistant curator at the American Numismatic Society, told contributor Nancy Giles. "They thought it was unkempt. It didn't speak to a more refined notion of liberty and womanhood."

Wittman says that wild Liberty woman kept getting sent back to the stylist, until by 1827 she was finally tamed.

The "matronly" version of Liberty sported a headband that says, "Liberty." "They now finally have the hair under control," he said.

Evolving U.S. penny designs, in which the flowing hair of Lady Liberty becomes more and more tamed over time. CBS News

In 1857 the penny shrunk to its current size, featuring first the flying eagle, and then the Indian head. Fast forward to 1909, and President Teddy Roosevelt had the idea of honoring one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln, by putting him on the penny, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth.

And Lincoln's been there ever since. Now, if we could only give Abe a penny for his thoughts...

Jeff Gore, a physics professor at MIT, said, "I can imagine him thinking, you know, 'I don't want my face on this worthless coin,' right?"

It's an argument that has grown louder in recent years, fueled in part by people like Jeff Gore, who say: Retire the penny already.

"Billions of pennies are made every year by the Mint," he said, "so that they can have a one-way trip from the Mint to the stores, into our pockets, and then into some jar at home."

After all, what can you buy with a penny these days? Nothing. And how much time do we waste going through our purses and wallets looking for one?

Gore points out that other countries have gotten rid of their lowest-denomination coin. "Most recently Canada retired their penny. And there were no earthquakes. Their economy is doing fine."

That's right. Three years ago Canada said au revoir to the penny, joining close to a dozen other countries that have thrown their smallest coins into the smelter.

So how do you make change, the Canadian way? Math is Gore's strong suit, so Giles had him crunch the numbers.

"If it ends in a zero or five, you don't have to do anything 'cause it's right at a nickel," he said. "Whereas if it ends in a one or a two, then you go down, to the zero. All right, that's good.

"Then, you know, three or four goes up to the five. So half the time it goes down, half the time it goes up."

Mark Weller runs Americans for Common Cents, and he wants the penny saved.

"There's not evidence at all that if you didn't have the penny and you rounded to the nickel, that they would round down," Weller said. "And the evidence seems to be there would be pricing schemes put in place where you would round up. And that would hurt consumers."

[BTW, Americans for Common Cents' major supporter is the zinc industry, which supplies the major ingredient in pennies these days.]

Get rid of the penny?

Give us your two cents - Should the U.S. drop its smallest coin?

Giles met Weller at the Lincoln Restaurant, a Washington shrine to the Lincoln penny.

She asked, "Do you think that another problem with even trying to approach this overhaul is that, in this country, we're kind of resistant to change? I've seen coins and bills all over the world that's got color, that's got women on it. What's with America, Mark?"

"It's a great question. Americans are reluctant to change," he said.

And speaking of "change," consider this: It costs about 1.6 cents to make every penny, and about 9 cents to make a nickel. The coins cost more than they're worth!

We could follow New Zealand's lead; they've gotten rid of the penny AND the nickel.

"If you visit New Zealand, you pay," said Wittmann. "Everything is rounded to a ten."

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