Did you know that when the first Canadian penny was struck in 1858, its diameter was set at exactly one inch so that, in addition to buying things, the coin could be used as a convenient measuring tool?
However, by 1920 copper had become so expensive the coin was reduced to the size we all know today (and since 2000 the penny isn't even made of copper anymore -- it's steel with copper plating).
Undoubtedly the most ubiquitous member of our national currency, pennies in their hundreds inhabit jars on our nightstands, car cupholders, and the crevices in our furniture. We dredge them by the handful from our pockets before tossing our pants in the laundry.
Not for much longer -- the penny has begun its long farewell. On May 4, 2012, the Canadian Mint facilities in Winnipeg stamped the very last penny. Although stores will continue to accept pennies indefinitely, from now on each penny that finds its way back to a bank will be sent to the Mint to be melted down, until they are all gone.
After more than 100 years of loyal service, we think the penny deserves a good send-off. It seems other Canadians agree.
"Free your pennies from their prisons and donate them to charity!"
That was the cry of Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as he announced the penny's demise in last year's federal budget. We've since talked to many different groups who are madly gathering pennies for many different causes.
When Burlington mom Chelsea Crealock's three daughters -- 12-year-old Abigail and 9-year-old twins Hannah and Sadie -- heard about the disappearing penny, they turned to their mom and asked, "What can we do?"
The girls began collecting pennies to give to the Canadian Paraplegic Association. It became a summer project with the girls setting up booths at local summer fairs, dressed in promotional t-shirts they had made up.
The big surprise was a phone call from the Burlington Youth Justice Centre -- when could the Crealocks come pick up the 166,000 pennies the staff had collected?
By October the family had gathered more than 233,000 pennies! Then came the arduous task of rolling them all. Crealock tells us they managed to completely clear the shelves of all cardboard coin rolls at the local Dollarama. Abigail complained she had never counted to 50 so many times in her life.
"It was good therapy. We sat in front of the TV and rolled pennies," says Crealock.
When Crealock showed up at the bank with her treasure trove -- weighing in at around 800 pounds -- she says the bank manager's jaw dropped.
Crealock and her daughters are now collecting pennies to support our We Create Change Campaign.
In Pictou County, Nova Scotia, the penny's demise was the inspiration for Juno-nominated musician Dave Gunning's latest album -- "No More Pennies."
"The penny is part of the Canadian story," Gunning tells us.
When the Canadian Mint learned Gunning used an image of the penny for his album artwork, he was hit with a bill for $1,200. Gunning said he would gladly pay for the right to use the image -- in pennies. When the Mint refused, Gunning upped the ante and said he would donate the $1,200 to a local hospital and challenged the Mint to match his donation. He has yet to get an answer.
That set the stage for Gunning to launch a campaign to collect pennies for the IWK Children's Hospital in Halifax. People began bringing pennies to his performances. A local bank in New Glasgow offered to match the value of all pennies he collected, and the staff even volunteered to roll the pennies for him. Gunning raised $6,200 for the hospital.
The penny has inspired us, too. Together with RBC, we launched the We Create Change campaign, gathering pennies to bring clean water to developing communities. It costs just 2,500 pennies ($25 dollars) to provide clean water for life for someone in need. Since last November, young Canadians have been dropping off special designated penny bags filled with pennies to RBC branches across Canada. And from February 4-9, RBC is accepting any amount of pennies, in any type of container at their local branches.
For the last 40 years the Mint has churned out more than 400 million pennies a year -- enough to fill at least 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year. There may be as many as 20 billion pennies still in circulation. If we can find just one per cent of those pennies still kicking around out there, that equals enough water for 80,000 people!
We'll bet you didn't know that the power to change the world is hiding under your sofa cushions.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger