Half Pennies, Finger Muscles, Foot the Bill

Hey, Matt:

Is it true that there used to be half pennies? If so, who was the president on that coin?

— Jay, via email

Yeah, I guess a half penny seems sorta useless in a time when nobody will even bother to bend over to pick up a liberated penny from the sidewalk. If you sawed that coin in half, how useful would it be at Starbucks? We have to hop into the Matthew Alice Combination Blender and Way-Back Machine (patent pending) and spin into history, about 200 years ago, to find Americans who happily loaded their pockets with the quarter-sized, pure copper half pennies.

Don’t forget that the British had had a long dalliance with the half penny by the time the English came to America. Perhaps in a flood of nostalgia, in 1773 the Virginia colony ordered some half pennies to add to their currency. (Virginia was loaded with British sympathizers.) Of course, before the Revolution, the coins had to come from England, from the mint in London. The head on the coin was the very dippity-doo King George III. Soon Virginia officials were knee deep in 670,000 British-made half pennies.

Once the dust had cleared from the Revolutionary War and the colonies were all stitched up into a more perfect union, the Philadelphia mint began striking half pennies in 1793. Apparently they became more annoying than useful by 1857, when the mint stopped making them. No presidents on any of them. In all 64 years that the coin was made, the face of the coin showed a classical profile of a woman’s head — long pointy nose, pointy chin, lots of messy, wavy hair pulled back with a ribbon. The only changes made to the lady over the years was to what she wore in her hair. Most often it was some variation of a wide ribbon or crown with the word “Liberty” on it. And if you put the half penny through those “what’s it worth now” calculators, the purchasing power of a half penny today is about a dime.

Dear Matthew:

Why is it that when I bend my little finger, the finger next to it moves too? When I bend my middle finger, the same thing happens. But when I bend my index finger, nothing else moves. Same with my thumb. I can’t think of any reason why fingers should work this way. Is it just me, or does everybody’s fingers work this way?

— Unsigned, via email

I gave the research elves the rest of the day off and called them in to handle this one. They’d been out in the backyard, tromping around trying to figure out the size of their carbon footprint when I decided to put them to better use. About halfway through this one, they were all perspiring heavily and drinking from the dog’s water dish; but I gave them a little pep talk and they cranked through the answer. I’ll give you a shorthand version, since I wouldn’t want you to break out into a rash too.

Under each of our fingers is a set of flexor muscles. We use these to make a fist. On top we have extensor muscles. We use these if we want to dope-slap somebody. In all fingers except our middle and ring fingers, these muscles move independently. Because your ring finger doesn’t have its own extensor muscle to keep it straight, it bends slightly when the pinkie bends. Ever notice when you flip somebody the bird, the only way you can keep your middle finger extended against the flex of the others is to hold the others down with your thumb? And how about the Hawaiian greeting or the “rock and roll!” hand signs. No accident that they involve the thumb, index finger, pinkie — the three fingers that can extend independently and easily while the others are flexed because of their musculature. The elves are pretty bummed that this explanation is the best I could do after all their thrashing through hand anatomy and physiology. I hope they’ll be cheered up by the fact that their carbon footprint is only a size four narrow.


I was complaining the other day about how I’m going to have to foot the bill for repairs to the house. So instead of getting bummed by the cost of the repairs, I decided to think about something else. So I decided to wonder why we say “foot the bill.” It makes no sense at all. But then neither does the repair bill.

— Bill (not really), San Diego

Long ago, “foot” meant to add up a column of figures. So footing the bill meant adding up the full damages. I guess the guy who footed the bill also paid it because eventually, by the early 19th Century, the meaning changed to the one we know now. No one’s quite sure how that happened.

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MA says that a half-penny today would be worth about a dime. My older brother was a coin collector, and for those out there that are into what the value would be today (meaning, if you owned the actual coin), there are many half-pennies that are just worth about $50. Ones from the 1700s are worth thousands (some as high as $55,000). Half-pennies from the mid 1880s, are usually worth between $50 to $300, depending on the condition, and how rare they are. I seem to recall reading that the liberty head ones are more common (they have the very bizarre wording of "Two Hundred for a dollar" stamped on them, in case you aren't so great at math).

When I said the coin's worth a dime, that was ten cents in purchasing power, not ten cents in value on the coin market. Obviously the coin is worth a lot more to dealers and collectors.

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