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The first three sentences of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi are as follows:

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies.

I've always wondered about this. This implies that $1.27 is in nickels, quarters and dimes, which is impossible on the surface, since 127 is not divisible by 5, but any combination of nickels, quarters and dimes is always divisible by 5.

Can we figure which of these is the case:

  1. Is there some mysterious literary device here e.g. O Henry knows he's wrong and is winking at the reader?
  2. Is there some sort of currency back 100+ years ago? I would assume if there were half-pennies, they'd be mentioned.
  3. Did O. Henry and his editor just miss it?
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    Please could somebody explain the joke for those of us who aren't American. I think that almost everybody appreciates that the US currency is formally denoted in Dollars and Cents, but my understanding is that the USA decimalised its currency some years before it did the same with weights and lengths so the colloquial "penny"- where a Penny is of course 1/12th of a Shilling or 1/252th of a Guinea- means very little to us. – Mark Morgan Lloyd May 17 at 15:49
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    Not a joke, so much as a way of conveying how hard it has been to save even this meager sum. The second sentence is "Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied." Even if all the rest is even in nickels, that means 60 out of 85 coins are pennies, nearly 2 times out of 3, Della cannot afford to set aside more than a single cent. – chepner May 17 at 17:51
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    Penny is also just the name for the one-cent piece, not directly related to the English coin of the same name. – chepner May 17 at 22:33
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    @MarkMorganLloyd US currency has long (always?) been decimalised, but Americans do have specific names which they attribute to the actual physical coins. 'Penny' = 1 cent coin, 'nickel' = 5 cent coin, 'dime' = 10 cent coin & 'quarter' = 25 cent coin (one quarter of a full Dollar). Many historical decimal currency systems similarly have names for the individual coins, and sometimes high-denomination bills as well - though all this seems to have fallen by the wayside in countries where the Euro has been introduced. – Drubbels May 18 at 15:58
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    Wikipedia says a half penny was last minted in 1857, how long did those stay [popular] in circulation? – ps2goat May 18 at 18:25
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There used to be a three-cent piece.

Assuming that "The Gift of the Magi" is set in the US at around the time of its publication in 1905, there was a three-cent piece which was still minted until 1890. That's the closest non-multiple-of-five-cents coin to the period, although there was also a two-cent coin which stopped being minted a little earlier, according to the following helpful chart from the US Mint:

Timeline-graph showing which years various coin denominations were being issued by the U.S. Mint. A "Three Cent" coin has a start year of 1851 and an end year of 1889

If the story is set around 1905, then three-cent pieces might well still have been regularly in circulation, even if they weren't being minted any more.

Or the "sixty cents" might not have been a precise figure.

It makes sense for Della to count up the total precisely, down to the cent - hence the exact figure of one dollar and eight-seven cents - so that she'd know how much she had and what she might be able to buy with it. But there's no particular reason for her to remember if it was exactly fifty-seven cents or sixty-two cents that were in pennies: around sixty cents of her total being in pennies would be a precise enough figure to get the point across.

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    If she's just approximating, something like "half in pennies" seems more likely. – Barmar May 17 at 15:00
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    @Joshua There was a US half-cent as well minted from 1793-1857. – JimmyJames May 17 at 20:22
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    Also a 2-cent piece was minted from 1864 to 1872. If I'm not mistaken one 2-cent piece would be all that is needed to make this work. – JimmyJames May 17 at 20:27
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    @JimmyJames Yep, either a single 2-cent coin or 4x 3-cent coins would work. – reirab May 17 at 21:26
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    To summarise the second part: While it cannot be that 60 cents of $1.87 are in pennies, it can very well be that sixty cents of $1.87 are in pennies. – Wrzlprmft May 18 at 16:01
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A quick look at Wikipedia lists a few obsolete coins which could be involved here, beyond the half cent:

  • Two-cent bronze: 2¢, 1863–1873
  • Three-cent nickel: 3¢, 1865–1889
  • Trime (Three-cent silver): 3¢, 1851–1873

Given the story was published in 1905, the three cent nickel could have been still in use. As I understand it, all of these are still legal tender in the US, so it wouldn't be surprising if some of these were still in circulation 15-30 years after they stopped being issued.

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    Although if you find any of those today, they'd be worth far more than their face value, just by virtue of their age. – Darrel Hoffman May 17 at 19:22
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Gift of the Magi was published in 1905. As others have already identified, the US had a two-cent piece until 1872 and a three-cent piece until 1889 (but with much lower production after 1875). The US does not demonetize coins: those coins are still legal for payment today (though I expect that they're worth a lot more than faith value to collectors). A total of 127 cents in non-pennies is possible if it involves two- or three-cent pieces in addition to perhaps higher-value coins.

Wikipedia, with citations of The Numismatist in 1909 and in 1954, indicates that about one third of the two-cent coins had been repurchased by the treasury by 1909, and that by 1954 “few alive could remember using a two-cent piece”. So in 1905, two-cent pieces would have been somewhat rare already, and this is likely true to some extent of three-cent pieces.

Now that we have the context, let's look at the text. This is the opening of the short story, so I expect the author was especially careful when writing it.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time (…). Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents.

We're told the amount twice. There's no room for errors or imprecision. There were definitely 60 pennies, not one more.

And apart from the pennies, some of the coins must be of a type that hasn't been minted in a couple of decades. This would have been apparent to a contemporary reader. Della has either been saving for a long time (perhaps not, since later the author tells us that “She had been saving every penny she could for months”), or she's trading with people who've been using small-value coins for a long time. She's not the kind of person who gets crisp notes from the bank.

The explicit and implicit information about the kind of coins Della has participates in making the reader understand that she's poor.

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  • Thanks for adding these points about how rare the 2/3 cent pieces were becoming. After reading them, I remember, as a kid, counting my change more than once when my allowance had run out. I remember having a few $2 bills too. – aschultz May 20 at 16:15
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Technically, It doesn't state that the sixty pennies were the only pennies. There could have been 187 pennies, and "sixty cents of it was in pennies" would be true. If this assumption is removed, we don't have to spin our wheels over the composition of the other $1.27.

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    This was my first thought and appropriate for a puzzle forum. But unlikely a puzzle/riddle in this context. – Daniel Widdis May 18 at 1:02
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    This sounds like a Mitch Hedberg joke... "And sixty cents of it was in pennies. A dollar twenty seven was in pennies, but sixty cents of it was too." – Michael May 18 at 1:38
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    @Michael I used to steal Mitch Hedberg jokes. I still do, but I used to, too. – Tsundoku May 18 at 10:57

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