CBS Sunday Morning

Welcome CBS viewers! Thanks to producer Alan Golds and company for featuring the ANS in a great little segment about the penny (click here to watch). As I explained to correspondent Nancy Giles, “penny” is the colloquial term for what is officially known as a one-cent coin or US cent. Broadly speaking, there have been four main types of pennies.

Of course there were a lot of small variations in the obverse device (the dominant image) and occasional wholesale changes to the reverses of these major types. As was mentioned in the segment, one of the things that we spent some time discussing was the ‘problem’ of Liberty’s hair during the large-cent era (1793-1857) of the penny. Click through the slideshow below to see how her hairstyle evolved.

The Flowing Hair cent of 1793, or what Nancy referred to as the teased-out Beyoncé look, was rather quickly tamed with the Liberty Cap design. From there a variety of accessories were introduced to manage Liberty’s tresses, culminating in the restrained look of the final Braided Hair design. Why and how the representation of Liberty unfolded in this fashion is perhaps worth its own post, but it was connected to evolving conceptions of gender and the idea of ‘republican motherhood‘ in particular. This progression also reflects one of the many ways that numismatics can illuminate the study of American history.

Afterword: So what’s my penny worth?

As a non-profit educational organization, the American Numismatic Society does not do formal evaluations or appraisals of coins. Luckily, this is something that is very easy to do yourself! Most every local library will have one of the standard US coin catalogs, which list all the major types of coins and their value. Many numismatists use what is known as the “Red Book,” and the 2016 edition of that was only just published. It is an inexpensive and thorough guide with helpful illustrations, histories, and values for most every coin you could possibly possess.

Matthew Wittmann