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A century ago, a penny was rare, coveted
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A century ago, a penny was rare, coveted

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Marlene Gantt

One hundred years ago there was a shortage of pennies during WWI.

War revenue taxes were one of the reasons, according to Daily Dispatch articles in November 1918.

The government put higher consumption taxes on such items as alcohol, tobacco, chewing gun, movie tickets and luxury items.

War revenue taxes amounted to one or more odd cents in theater admissions and other items. This created an enlarged demand for the penny.

The U.S. Mint's output of three million copper coins a day was considered insufficient. The government was not ready to resort to issuance of paper money of denominations less than a dollar, similar to the “shin plasters” of the Civil War days.

But Raymond T. Baker, director of the mint, had given consideration to making paper money worth less than a dollar. Shin plasters were fractional currency introduced between Aug. 21, 1862 and Feb. 15, 1876. They were issued in 3-, 5-, 10-, 15-, 25- and 50-cent denominations across five issuing periods, according to Wikipedia.

Baker declared, “’the country is threatened with a severe shortage of cents, dimes and other small change, for the approaching holiday season," The Dispatch reported.

“He appealed to persons who collect small coins as a savings hobby to exchange them for coins of larger denominations or for currency, to relieve the shortage. Children particularly, were asked to do their bit,” said the newspaper. “New York, Chicago and many other cities report shortages of small coins and have appealed to the mint to rush shipments of pennies."

A local banker in Moline felt the shortage of pennies was not only due to the war tax. That banker, according to The Dispatch, felt the shortage was partly due to the thrift of the people in the U.S.

“In days gone by, whenever anybody boosted the price of something he had to sell, he advanced the price five cents because the American people would rather pay the nickel than bother with pennies,” the newspaper said. “But times have changed. Now people are not only willing to bother with pennies but they kick like blazes when they have to pay a cent more. This is natural when many have so few cents left.”

A Moline banker told The Dispatch he had written to Chicago and asked for $200 worth of dimes, $200 worth of nickels and $10 worth of pennies “’We were lucky to get the $10 worth," he told the newspaper.

“In New York,” the newspaper reported, “the shortage is so acute that the U.S. sub-treasury is appealing to the kiddies to open their banks and get the pennies there exchanged into larger coinage.”

Then relief came from Denver, Colo.

“From now until some undermined time in the future, the Denver mint will turn out nothing but pennies - 600,000 of them a day - to relieve the need for great numbers of coppers caused by the war tax bill,” the newspaper said.

In addition to the tax on consumer goods, the income tax was changed under the War Revenue Act of 1917. Income tax rates were raised, while exemptions were lowered.

The 2 percent bracket had previously applied to income below $20,000. That amount was lowered to $2,000. The top bracket (income over $2 million) was raised from 15 percent to 67 percent.

There are more one-cent coins produced than any other denomination. The coin has weathered two world conflicts and more. Maybe we should reach down and pick up that penny on the sidewalk.

Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a retired Rock Island music teacher.

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