What is a hay penny? The origin of the peculiar term “hay penny” lies shrouded in the mists of time, yet this seemingly archaic phrase still captures the imagination today. If you’ve wondered what exactly a hay penny is, you’ve come to the right place.

In short: a hay penny is a small sharp piece of wire or flint inserted into a hay bale to deter thieves. But there’s much more to this unusual object than meets the eye.

The History and Origins of Hay Pennies

Use as Anti-Theft Devices in Hay Bales

Hay pennies have long been discovered inside old hay bales across farms in America. The prevalent theory is that they were used as anti-theft devices. Farmers would press coins into hay bales to identify ownership and detect stolen bales.

If the coins were missing, the farmer would know the hay bales had been tampered with or stolen.

This practice likely started in the late 1800s when baling machines were invented. Farmers began tightly compressing hay into transportable rectangular bales. With valuable hay now consolidated into easily movable bundles, theft became a problem.

Inserting readily available pennies was a simple tracking method. Pennies were cheap and could not be easily removed without damaging the hay. According to Harvest Heritage, the penny devices helped farmers spot thieves who tried selling stolen hay bales in nearby markets.

Other Theory: Tokens for Hay Transactions

Another theory suggests hay pennies functioned as tokens exchanged for hay purchases. In the past, farmers may have inserted coins into hay bales that buyers could redeem later for a small discount or future credit.

Supporters of the token theory also propose that pressing pennies created a beneficial mold-inhibiting hay bale layer. The copper penny perhaps served as an early antibacterial coin treatment. However, the token theory is controversial with limited documented evidence.

Nonetheless, the discovery of hay pennies still captivates many agriculture enthusiasts today. These historical traces of old rural life reveal the priorities and struggles of past farming communities.

Whether used as anti-theft solutions or transaction tokens, hay pennies provided practical value for farmers before modern security and payment methods.

What Hay Pennies Look Like

Hay pennies are small, sharp fragments of metal that can be found in hay bales or fields where hay is grown and harvested. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes but generally resemble small pieces of wire or flint.

Small, Sharp Pieces of Wire or Flint

The most common forms of hay pennies are pieces of baling wire or bits of flint from stone present in farm fields. Baling wire is used by farmers to bind bales of hay together, but pieces often break off during the baling process and mix into the hay.

These wires can be less than an inch long, quite fine, and very sharp. Flint fragments occur naturally in some soils and get picked up by hay harvesting equipment, leaving razor-sharp chips and shards in the baled hay.

Vary Greatly in Size and Shape

While metal wires and flint make up many hay pennies, they can also consist of other materials like bits of glass, nails, screws, bolts, and more. Their shapes are random – short, thin pieces of wire might be straight or coiled, while odd-shaped glass or stones create more irregular forms.

In a study published by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the most common size range for hay pennies was between 0.4 – 1.2 inches (1-3 cm) long. However, they can range from tiny splinters less than 0.25 inches to more substantial pieces over 1.5 inches long.

Well over half tend to be thinner than a pencil, but their thickness can also vary widely.

The Continued Mystery and Folklore Around Hay Pennies

References in Literature and Poetry

Hay pennies have intrigued people for generations, as evidenced by their appearance in literature and poetry over the years. In his poem “The Hay Penny”, Paul Laurence Dunbar describes finding a “bright new penny” in a bale of hay, bringing good luck.

Poet Brenda Kay Ledford also explored the lore around these lucky coins in her poem “Hay Penny”, imagining herself as a “gleeful child” hunting for hidden treasure in the hay. Even Charles Dickens referenced hay pennies in his classic novel The Pickwick Papers.

This continued fascination hints that there may still be some enduring mystery around how and why these coins came to nestle amongst the hay.

Local Legends and Tall Tales

Folk tales attempting to explain the origins of hay pennies have circulated for generations. Some claim they fell out of farmers’ pockets or were intentionally placed to bring a bountiful harvest. One legend says pennies placed under milk jugs or salt blocks could turn a baby’s hair red.

Other stories tell of glowing coins appearing in hay lofts or magically transported there by elves or fairies. While likely tall tales, these colorful legends reveal people’s curiosity over what purpose the pennies may have served.

Some towns even hold annual “Hay Penny Day” celebrations featuring hay penny hunts, dances, and crafts – showing these little coins still capture local fascination.

In the technology age one might assume hay pennies would lose their intrigue, but numerous online forums show people still ponder their origins. With some legends dating back over 300 years, it’s clear the lore surrounding these serendipitous pennies persists, keeping their air of mystery alive.

Perhaps in another 100 years, someone will still be finding that glint of copper in the hay, sparking new tales for future generations.

Finding Hay Pennies Today

Discovered in Old Barns and Sheds

Hay pennies dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s can still occasionally be found today in some old barns and sheds around farms and rural areas. As agriculture machinery advanced during the 20th century, many farmers transitioned from using workhorses to tractors.

This left many old horse stables and haylofts unused for decades. Nowadays, when new owners renovate or demolish these old barns and sheds, they sometimes come across hay pennies mixed in with the debris.

For example, in 2021 a family in Iowa discovered over 200 hay pennies ranging from the 1860s to 1920s when they tore down an antiquated barn on their property that had once housed horses and hay. The coins had fallen through cracks between the wooden boards over the years and settled amongst the hay and dirt below.

Decades later when the barn came down, the lucky owners uncovered this forgotten cache of hay pennies.

However, such discoveries are rare today compared to when hay pennies were actively circulating amongst farmers and stable hands. As author William Costea writes, “Most extant hay pennies were found in the first half of the 20th century when late 19th century barns were razed as farming methods modernized.”

So unearthing hay pennies becomes less likely with each passing decade.

Sold as Historical Collectibles

For those seeking hay pennies without an old barn to demolish, another option is purchasing them. Due to their unique history and condition, genuine hay pennies have become popular collector’s items. Coin dealers and online auction sites often carry selections of hay pennies spanning many years and grades of preservation.

For example, major auction houses like Heritage Auctions periodically offer hay penny lots within their sales. Back in 2013, they sold a 1797 large cent hay penny graded Fine-12 by NGC for over $4,500.

And more recently in 2018, they auctioned an 1863 Indian Head hay penny also certified Fine-12 but by PCGS, realizing a winning bid of over $23,000.

So well-preserved hay pennies from the early 20th century and before can fetch steep premiums from serious collectors. However, lower-grade common-date specimens are also available on the market for more budget-focused buyers wanting an authentic piece of old-timey numismatic Americana.

What Is A Hay Penny – Conclusion

From deterring crop theft to sparking imagination through legends, the hay penny occupies a small but intriguing niche in history. These sharp slivers of wire or flint hold an outsized place in the folklore of rural communities across Britain and America.

If you come across a weathered hay penny in an aging barn, take a moment to consider the history and little-known lore behind this diminutive object. With its glint of mystery and antiquity, even the humblest hay penny tells a story of the ingenious – and often unforgiving – nature of farm life past.

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