Pennies from Heaven
I like to pick up pennies in the street. It's a really good thing to do. Bending down to get the coin is great exercise and it makes me richer.

Sometimes I worry about the possibility of picking up germs along with the pennies, but if you can get diseases that way you can probably get them from any coin no matter where it comes from. A frightening thought!

For the most part the coins are there because kids throw them away. They don't like to clutter up their pockets with small change. It jangles when they walk (which is uncool) and makes their clothing bulge in unfashionable ways.

Just lately there seem to be more coins on the pavements than there used to be. Strange, really, considering we live in recessionary times with high unemployment and a great deal of fear about the future.

The last time I remember an epidemic of coin throwing, a time when the minimum value was regarded as too small a unit to be worth keeping, was in the mid 1960s. On my way to school in the morning I could nearly always find a half penny (or hapenny), sometimes several. At the time there were 480 half pennies to the pound (this was before decimalisation). Now there are 100 pennies to the pound.

Does this mean that inflation has made the currency worth about a fifth of its value in the 1960s?

Possibly, but it seems unlikely. In the 1970s I was interested in buying houses and spent some of my time writing about building inflation. At the time (I remember) the cheapest house in London cost about £10k. Today the same house would fetch about £200k. That would suggest prices have gone up by a factor of twenty, not five.

Perhaps the main difference was the size of the coin. In the 1960s the hapenny was exactly the same size as the modern 2p. As a consequence it made more of a bulge in the pockets than the current penny.

In the mid 1960s the years of austerity (the hungry 30s, the war years, the drab 50s) were coming to an end. Today the economy appears to be balanced on a knife edge with global depression as likely as a new era of technologically fuelled growth and prosperity. But no matter what the future holds I'm grateful for the exercise all those cool teenagers give me by throwing away their small change.

Posted by Jonathan Brind at 04:40