The idea that finding a penny will bring good luck comes from superstition and folklore. There isn’t usually any scientific backing for the claim, and at least from a methodical position the simple act of finding a penny cannot itself change someone’s fortunes; the hope that it could and the belief that it might has become an ingrained part of many cultural traditions, though. Children in most English-speaking regions learn variations of the rhyme “find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck” from the time they are small, and many adults find they pick up “lucky pennies” by habit, whether or not they consider themselves “superstitious” in the traditional sense. The precise origins of the belief are somewhat difficult to nail down, though explanations range from early beliefs about where metal came from to the notion that money symbolizes power.
Origins of the Superstition
Bad things can happen to good people when they least expect it. As a result, people tend to fall back on ancient rituals that seem to stave off disaster, or that they believe could. This is normally considered a form of superstition. Superstitions are things or rituals that people believe will cause certain outcomes, usually without any basis in fact or logic. Many superstitions seem to revolve around the struggle between good and evil, and these rituals were designed to swing the balance onto the side of good. Penny good luck charms usually fall into this category.
Finding a penny and picking it up is a relatively new spin on an old superstition. Ancient cultures believed that metal was a gift from the gods given to man for protection against evil, and that may have developed into the idea that metal brings good luck. This particular belief may have also influenced the widely-held notion that hanging a horseshoe over a door frame can change a family’s fortunes, as well as the practice of wearing charm bracelets and carrying “good luck” coins.
The promise of wealth and power associated with money may also be an influence. Though pennies today are relatively minor in terms of actual value, this hasn’t always been the case; and, in any event, all savings have to start small. Some people believe that the penny good luck tradition came from times when pennies were worth more, and represented a start or change to monetary solvency.
Most sayings and cultural traditions vary from place to place and generation to generation, and turns and twists on the penny superstition are no different. The precise wording of the phrase is one of the first things that can differ, but the actual ritual can be different, too. Some people say that a penny is only good luck if it is heads up, and pennies that are found heads down should be either left or given to someone else. Other variations teach that luck can only be had if the found penny is passed along to a friend or stranger, often within the same day.
Some cultures, particularly those with roots in Ireland and Northern Europe, traditionally believe that found pennies belong to the leprechauns, fairies, pixies, or other tiny creatures. In these situations, finders are usually advised to spit on the coin then throw it into the bushes or nearby hedges for the small beings, who will effectively use it as payment to then bring good luck or fortune to the giver.
Related Phrases and Beliefs
There are a number of traditional beliefs and charms that center on pennies. Many brides in Western countries put a penny in one of their shoes before getting married, for instance, often as a way to bring luck or wealth to the union. The common saying “put a penny wrapped in paper, keep it to avoid your debtors" is another turn of phrase that carries something of a wide grip on superstitious people of many cultures.