They Say Old is Gold

Pennies

Why do we have a fascination with old things?

A friend of mine collects coins. He isn’t all that interested in their trading value, and mostly he deals in pennies. Large volumes of them pass through his careful gaze, slid across a table and his attention just long enough to catch salient details: date, location of mint, condition. Then they go into one of a few piles depending on what’s next. Most go back into circulation, but a few are special. They possess the right combination of unusual characters to make them rare, and to someone like him, that is precious. Chief among these characters is age.

I gave him a large glass bottle of pennies I’d been collecting for years so that he could look for anything he liked, and one solitary penny in the whole group caught his fascination. It was an older penny that just happened to be in very good condition for its age. He was certain, he told me, that it had come from someone’s collection. Someone had cared for it, kept it safe from wear and even from the harm that uncontrolled environmental air can inflict upon copper. Someone gave a real shit about this particular penny, that I had probably been handed by a convenient store clerk to break a bill I spent on an eggwich and coffee. They’d looked at it with a magnifying glass. Written down its details. Looked it up in current publications made by others bearing this same preoccupation with coins. To me, it looked just like any other newer penny. I might have left it in the give-a-penny-take-a-penny tray.

Once, I asked him why he spent so much time sorting and inspecting pennies. To be honest, I said, to me it seems quite boring. Like counting beans or sifting gravel. He explained that some were special, like the old collector’s penny that I’d given him in a jar with hundreds of others. But why does it matter, I asked. He said that it was just fascinating to hold that little piece of history in your hand.

Human beings’ obsession with things that have stood for long years is visible everywhere. The veneration heaped upon old ideas, old buildings, old land, old institutions. Fictional characters that have lived for multiple lifetimes are cast as wise, powerful. Trees that have endured centuries are protected. We see the aged things among us as carrying an intrinsic value associated solely with the passage of time that it has withstood. Why do we not tear down historical buildings to make room for new ones that will be built with better craftsmanship and materials? Why are we reticent to replace old ideas with new ones that have learned from and improved upon the old? Indeed, many of us refuse to even believe that anything new could be better than the old, and cling to the ancient under the notion that it is somehow better, even when this can be proven untrue.

Is it because we remember the old thing, and resist change? Is it because we cling to traditions and established ways, a known human trait? Is it because we hope to achieve some sort of immortality by extending our influence beyond the scope of our lives (more about that here)? Are old things symbolic to us of other things we value, like an event, a person, or a time gone by? Is it the long-established lack of mystery? If we know a thing, we are more likely to trust it to be what it is than to try out something new, right? Is there a purpose relevant to the present moment that the protection of something from the past serves? What is the root psychological purpose of preserving, say, a historic location?

I’d love to hear your ideas. What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “They Say Old is Gold

  1. I guess for me an old object makes me feel like I have access to a point in time that’s now long gone. Depending on how old the object is, that point in time may have been very different from the one I inhabit, which makes it all the more interesting. It sounds like that penny has value to your friend at least in part because it gives him a sort of connection to the previous owner(s).

    • Great comment, I agree. And isn’t it interesting how the memory of the time in our lives that the item reminds us of can be painful or pleasurable depending on how we feel about the present? As though the evidence of our progression since that time informs the value of its memory, and thus the value of nostalgia, and perhaps even reflection on a greater scale.

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