Gatsby’s Penny

“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.


1923 United States Penny

1923 United States Penny

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?  

24 thoughts on “Gatsby’s Penny

  1. Tara

    Wow, that was quite a year. Thankful for the penny that prompted you to share its story. I’m still wowing over the fact that the Attorney General approved the wearing of “trousers.” Well thank goodness for that one. A great story to start my weekend!

  2. Holly Parker

    My daddy was three years old when that penny was made. I’m going to take this list when I visit him at the War Veterans Home and share it with him. His body is as worn as that old penny but the twinkle is still in his eyes.

    1. Baddest Mother Ever

      Oh, Holly–that’s makes my heart so happy! My grandfather was born in 1902. For his 100th birthday party, I researched what had happened that year. Both the ice cream cone and the teddy bear were new crazes!

  3. Karen

    Wow. That was quite a year. Your musing about the “life” of that penny made me think about how I feel when I see old houses that have been abandoned. I always wonder about the dreams that were dreamt there, the families that called it home, the dramas big and small that must have occurred there over the years. It always makes me a little sad to see someone’s dream in disrepair.

  4. Laura

    I always find it interesting how so much happens in a year when you look back at history, yet somedays it feels as if nothing of note has happened in the present day!
    Thanks for the great essay!

  5. kwaterbury

    I gotta say waking up to find this in my inbox was great. I loved this post. It’s true a lot happens in a year & it’s funny how a thing as tiny and simple as a penny can make you stop in your tracks and think about it’s history and the trail it’s taken to somehow wind up in your hands. Thanks for such an awesome post this morning. 🙂

  6. Katie

    My grandfather collects “wheat back” pennies and we have always kept our eyes peeled for them. When I was a cashier, I came to work with my own pennies so as I inspected every customer penny I was handed and found wheat backs, I could swap them with mine. My grandfather’s collecting, as well as your writing, remind me to look for the beautiful in the everyday.

  7. Heart To Harp

    I love all your thoughts about this old penny. One of the “old” things I treasure is my dad’s boyhood stamp collection, which he started sometime around 1930. Many of the countries that issued stamps in that era no longer exist, or did not emerge back into existence until after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Put the “old” that really trips my trigger is old music. To be playing a piece that debuted in Notre Dame de Paris on Christmas Day in 1188, or a piece that was composed for the wedding of the daughter of the Medici’s of Renaissance Florence – the thought of being a continuing extension of those composers’ thoughts and those musicians’ experiences nearly a millennium later – it practically makes me swoon.

  8. Pingback: Sunday Sweetness–1923 Never Left Us | Baddest Mother Ever

  9. Kathy Bangle

    So thankful you reposted this one! My precious daddy was born in 1923, so it was a GREAT year! I always think of how amazing it is that he survived diseases, the Great Depression, the front lines of WWII, and much more before I was even born! He used to say he was younger in older life than he was when he was young (which was hard or understand as a kid)! I will continue to be grateful at stop lights and putting on my pants today!!!! Thankful, too, for your thoughts!

  10. Gay Garrett

    GOOD GOD KID, YOU CAN WRITE! Wasn’t it the telephone company that Coined the phrase, Reach out and touch someone. Well, forget that. Read Ashley’s blog and you will be touched in the best way, and sometimes you’ll get a hug.

  11. Alicia S

    I admire your ability to see a story, to see history, in such simple things as a penny. And I’m glad that you share your thoughts with us because I never would have thought of this story that you’ve told today.


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