That makes cents.

Couldn’t resist that title there. :D

So last November, the mint released the new reverse design for the Lincoln cent that will be permanently (or at least until 2059) replacing the Memorial back, as the Memorial replaced the Wheat back in 1959.

They chose a very retro Union Shield design that I hope is the opening salvo in a long-overdue rethinking of our coin designs. I actually preferred the next one, but the one they chose is nice, simple and historical. One also has to keep in mind that this design has to fit and be legible on the limited space available on the back of a penny, and has to wear well over time.

Actually, I’m of the opinion that we should rethink our pocket change from the ground up. And while we’re at it, get rid of the paper $1 and $5. A paper bill only lasts about 18 months. A coin … well, check your pocket change. I still frequently see nickels from the ’40s and ’50s. Once in a while, a Wheatie cent. You won’t find higher denoms before 1965 since they were silver before then, though.

A few years ago on a numismatics forum I used to hang out on (and should get active on again), I proposed a ground-up redesign as follows:

Coins will be minted in the following denominations: 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, $1, $2 and $5. Paper money below $10 will cease production.

The one, two and five cent coins will be copper-washed zinc with a plain edge, like modern pennies. The ten, twenty and fifty cent coins will be either copper-nickel clad like the current quarter or copper-nickel alloy like the current nickel, and will have a reeded edge like the quarter in either case. The one, two and five dollar coins will be manganese ‘gold’ like the Sacagaweas and Presidential dollars, and will have alternating reeding and smooth spots on the edges, or some other distinct milling (maybe raised stars like on the Indian Head gold eagle).

The 1c, 10c and $1 will be the same size, the 2c, 20c and $2 a little larger (and the same size as each other), and the 5c, 50c and $5 will be a little larger still (and the same size as each other). The sizes and edge patterns will make it easy to tell by touch what denomination coin it is.

While it increases the number of coins from six to nine, it reduces the number of different sizes of blanks from six to three, and the number of different coin contents from four to three.

On the 1c, 2c and 5c will be Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln — the same ordering as on paper money. The reverse will be a simple denomination on a traditional design (like the Union Shield above, for example), using either Arabic or Roman numerals, whichever looks better.

On the 10c, 20c and 50c will be symbols of the three branches of our government – perhaps the Supreme Court building, the White House and Congress in some order. The reverse design could be a version of the Statue of Liberty design being used on the back of the Presidential dollars.

The $1, $2 and $5 would be national symbols: a new standing or walking Liberty (cf. the Standing Liberty quarter and Walking Liberty half dollar) or the Statue of Liberty if it’s not used as the reverse as mentioned above, a seated Justice with sword and scales (not blindfolded — justice is not blind!), and an eagle in flight.

Commemorative issues should be encouraged, and they should circulate. If it’s worth commemorating, then it’s worth commemorating by everybody. A commemorative coin that nobody but collectors ever sees is sterile. It doesn’t educate, it doesn’t make someone think when it hits their hand.

Maybe we should mandate that the designs should change every ten, twenty years or so, so they don’t get stale like our coins have. At least when they were high relief, they had visual appeal — if you’re wondering what I’m talking about, find yourself a nice condition quarter from the mid ’60s and one from today. Look at how flat the modern coin looks compared with the sculpture and depth of the old one.

Coins should be more than just unregarded metal disks in your pocket. They’re a way for a nation to say something about itself to its citizens and to the world. One of my favorite American designs was the eagle on the moon, on the reverse of the Ike and Susan B. Anthony dollars — and surely the most beautiful coin this country ever produced was the St. Gaudens double eagle.

Why shouldn’t we be able to reach into our pocket, and pull out a history lesson, an art lesson or a civics lesson? Why shouldn’t our coins celebrate not only our common heritage, but our regional and local as well, like the various commemorative halves of the middle of the 20th century?

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