Initially, I started smashing pennies because I was fascinated with the material properties of the coins, especially post-1981 copper-plated zinc coins. The resulting — as the numismatic community would say — elongated pennies were stunningly unique.
Then I started thinking about the fact that pennies are miniature memorials to Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, the savior of the Union. I wondered about my lack of concern over destroying the image of a lauded hero who I also regard as a great man.
So I researched the penny. Introduced as a commemorative coin in 1909 to celebrate Lincoln’s centennial, the Lincoln cent stuck around because of its popularity. Now people throw them away. As economic tokens, pennies are inefficient — it actually costs 1.7 cents to mint a penny and put it into circulation — plus, most people don’t spend them. Parrots and dogs die from eating them. The poor would bear the cost of eliminating the penny (due to rounding cash transactions), but otherwise pennies are economically unnecessary. Every penny I smashed I found on the ground — discarded, Lincoln’s face in the dirt. Does this belie another devaluation in our culture?
Transformation of a penny requires approximately five tons of external force. Transformation of a person or a culture requires forces of incalculable measures from within and without. The pressures that extrude these latter changes can be difficult to discover, but I think they are worth seeking. What is the value of a great person? What moves a culture to abandon commonplace symbols of greatness? Does a symbol lose its value when assigned a monetary one? This series examines these ideas.
All titles are taken from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address (1861), Gettysburg Address (1863), and Second Inaugural Address (1865).
© Billi London-Gray