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This common rhyme refers to an old superstition, and like many superstitions, it has many variations and the reasoning behind those variations are also numerous. Reasons why finding pennies brings good luck range from early beliefs about where metal came from to the notion that money symbolizes power.
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. That is, they believe in superstitions. 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.
Finding a penny and picking it up is a relatively new spin on an old superstition. Many years ago, people believed that metal was a gift from the gods, given to man for protection against evil. That developed into the notion that metal brings good luck. In fact, this idea is partially represented in the practice of hanging horseshoes over their doorways, wearing charm bracelets, and carrying good luck coins.
The old wives’ tale of putting a penny in the shoe of a woman on her wedding day comes from a Victorian rhyme: "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a silver sixpence in your shoe." These superstitions were all requests for good luck for the bride. Perhaps because finding a penny was easier than finding a silver sixpence, people made a substitution. Now the saying concludes, "and a lucky penny in the shoe." The penny was intended to be worn in the shoe of the bride to ensure that the newly married couple would always have wealth. The tying of metal cans behind a newlywed couple’s car is another version of the superstition that metal protects and brings wealth.
The saying, "Put a penny wrapped in paper, keep it to avoid your debtors," is another way that metal was thought to bring wealth.
Finding a penny is still considered good luck, but some variations of the old wives' tale includes the position of the penny. If the penny is found heads up, it brings good luck. If it is found heads down, it brings bad luck. If the finder gives it to a friend, he passes the luck on to someone else.
Lots of superstitions center around money. Almost all forms of currency have at least one superstition associated with them. The most common superstition heard today, with respect to the penny, is the rhyming verse: "Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you'll have good luck." This may have originated in the rhyme: "Money on the floor, more at the door."
Penny superstitions also include:
- Carry a penny for luck.
- Tossing a penny overboard while traveling at sea will ensure a safe trip.
- Keeping a jar of pennies in the kitchen is good luck.
- If giving a gift of a purse or wallet to someone, put a penny in it for good luck. (With inflation, this superstition has now grown to a dollar bill!)
- Keep a coin in a baby's pram or crib and the baby will grow up to be healthy, wealthy and wise.
- Finding a penny means more money is coming your way.
- Putting the first penny you receive each day into your pocket will attract more throughout the day.
- Coins with holes in them are especially lucky.
- Tossing a penny when you have a problem will allow the fates to take care of the problem for you.
- Tossing a penny over your left shoulder, into a wishing well or body of water, while making a wish, will make your wish come true.
- Carrying three pennies around will bring you good luck.
- Place a penny in your shoe to bring good fortune and protection against want. It doesn't matter which shoe you put it in.
If you should find a penny face up, pick it up for a day of luck.
If you should find it face down, leave it lay on the ground.