“See a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck.”
This morning when the young woman at McDonald’s handed me my change from a drive thru breakfast, the wheat sheaves on the back of a penny caught my eye. Out of curiosity, I flipped the coin over and checked the minted date.
This penny is so old that it’s silky smooth. I can barely feel the bump of Abraham Lincoln’s nose when I rub my thumb across the face of the coin. It feels thinner, because time has worn away much of the soft copper. It’s so light that it feels like a coin from another country and in a way, it is. When this coin was minted, the Civil War was only fifty eight years past. A former slave could have held this penny, looked upon the face of Lincoln, and smiled. In 1923, the world had survived its Great War only to have millions die from the Spanish flu. Electric lights and motorcars…and this penny in my hand.
In 1923, The Great Gatsby was barely an idea. That was the year F. Scott Fitzgerald began dreaming up the story, inspired by the raucous parties he had attended on Long Island the previous summer, the summer of 1922. Wild parties, crazy parties, parties that cost a pretty penny. Have you seen the new Baz Luhrmann adaptation? I thought it was a delight for the eyes and the ears, but some of the story compression bothered me. Overall, worth the 1000 pennies it cost me to see it.
When Fitzgerald began planning the book that would become his most famous work, he desired to create “something new — something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”
A story as bright as a new penny. Simple and beautiful, intricately patterned. For ninety years, this penny has been going in and out of pockets, lost under a bed, saved in a piggy bank, into a till and out of a till, dropped in the garden, plowed up in the spring, saved up for something precious or tossed away with the trash in the bottom of a purse. What things were bought with this penny when it was shiny and new? How many times has it been thrown into a fountain, carrying a wish? It’s already precious to me, so I’ll tuck it away into my treasure box to show my kids some day.
So there I was, in my SUV, going through a drive thru to get a Diet Coke. Bruce Robison CD playing and my smartphone charging up. I got to thinking about just how different the world was when this penny was shiny. How much one year can change the world. Here are some of the things that happened in 1923:
Jan 1st - Union of Socialist Soviet Republics established
Jan 2nd - Ku Klux Klan surprise attack on black residential area Rosewood Florida. Eight people are killed. The town is destroyed and abandoned
Feb 16th - Howard Carter finds Pharaoh Tutankhamen
Mar 3rd - Time Magazine publishes 1st issue
Mar 6th - Cardinals announce their players will wear numbers on their uniforms
Apr 7th - 1st brain tumor operation under local anesthetic performed (Beth Israel Hospital in NYC) by Dr K Winfield Ney
Apr 10th - Hitler demands “hatred & more hatred” in Berlin
Apr 15th - Insulin becomes generally available for diabetics
Apr 18th - 74,000 (62,281 paid) on hand for opening of Yankee Stadium
May 3rd - 1st nonstop transcontinental flight (NY-San Diego) completed
May 4th - NY state revokes Prohibition law
May 28th - Attorney General says it is legal for women to wear trousers anywhere
Jun 12th - Harry Houdini frees himself from a straight jacket while suspended upside down, 40 feet (12 m) above ground in NYC
Jun 14th - Recording of 1st country music hit (Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane)
Jul 13th - The Hollywood Sign is officially dedicated in the hills above Hollywood, Los Angeles. It originally reads “Hollywoodland ” but the four last letters are dropped after renovation in 1949.
Jul 29th - Albert Einstein speaks on pacifism in Berlin
Aug 3rd - Baseball games cancelled following the death of President Harding
Sep 15th - Gov Walton of Oklahoma declares state of siege because of KKK terror
Oct 16th - Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio founded
Oct 29th - ”Runnin’ Wild” (introducing the “Charleston” craze) opens on Broadway
Nov 12th - In Germany, Adolf Hitler is arrested for attempt to seize power on Nov 8
Nov 20th - Garrett Morgan invents & patents traffic signal
Dec 6th - 1st presidential address broadcast on radio (Pres Calvin Coolidge)
Dec 31st - 1st transatlantic radio broadcast of a voice, Pittsburgh-Manchester
Houdini and Einstein and Hitler and Disney. Names we say every day, still. Rosewood, a name we should remember more often. Pants for women! Traffic lights. Insulin. Brain surgery. Radio and airplanes. Liquor flowing again….let’s drink a toast to King Tut! Yankee Stadium, the Hollywood sign and Time Magazine. All in ONE YEAR.
The art teacher at Terezin camp whom I wrote about this week? In 1923, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was a 25 year old cosmopolitan woman who studied and taught at Weimar Bauhaus. She was bright and shiny as a new penny. This penny.
This penny has seen ninety years of human history. It’s been touched by thousands and it has meant something to many. I’m going to hold on to it now, so it can remind me to pay attention to simple things, for there are always great stories hiding in the most ordinary objects.
What’s something old that you’ve stumbled across? What do you consider old?