The 1919 Kookaburra Square Penny
The Melbourne Mint commenced striking Australia's Commonwealth copper pennies in 1919. No sooner had the mint started issuing the coins, than it was directed by Treasury to commence testing an entirely new penny concept, a square coin made from cupro-nickel.
The introduction of the Kookaburra Square Penny underpinned an attempt by the then Labor Government to stir up national sentiment post World War I. To evoke the great 'Aussie' spirit.
If you think about it. Putting the nation’s native bird - the kookaburra - onto a coin was a no-brainer to achieving that goal. A drastically changed shape, a square. And a new metal, cupronickel was part of the total package to maximise impact on the population.
The proposal was contentious in that the monarch, King George V, was to be depicted on the obverse without a crown. Some say it was the rumblings of a Republican movement way ahead of its time.
Tests commenced at the Melbourne Mint in 1919 with the test pieces ultimately passed to dignitaries and Government officials to assess their reaction.
Four different coin designs were tested in 1919 and they are referred to as the Type 3, Type 4, Type 5 and Type 6.
The Type 3 Square Penny, with its modern lettering and sleek-style kookaburra, has a design that is unique to its type. No other square penny type bears that design.
Similarly, the Type 5 Square Penny has a kookaburra design that is also unique to its type. The Type 4 and Type 6 share the same kookaburra design but have different obverse designs.
All the 1919 Square Pennies are extremely rare.
The Type 4 would become available to collectors, once in a decade and is by far the rarest of those dated 1919. The Type 5 and Type 6 Square Pennies would be seen on the market perhaps once every five years. The Type 3 with its unique design would be seen on the market perhaps once every two years.
The popularity of the Type 3 becomes immediately obvious when you look at these numbers. A collector will still have to wait two years for a Type 3 Square Penny ... but that's better than waiting for ten!
Sadly, in 1921 and after three years of testing, the scheme fell apart. The response to Australia’s square coinage was poor with widespread public resistance to change and people generally rejecting the small size of the coins.
However, the final decision not to proceed seems to have been based mainly on another consideration – the large number of vending machines then in operation requiring a circular coin.
The Square Pennies that remain today are relics of our past, and the sentiment that they stir up in the current market is collector sentiment, driven by their novel shape and their extreme rarity.
Useful buying information on the 1919 Square Penny
Glancing at the photos of the Square Pennies shown above, you could be forgiven for believing that the coins were struck to exacting minting standards. Dare we even suggest proof quality minting standards.
But the coins shown above are the exception to those most commonly found and amongst the finest available, their superior quality reflected in their strike, their surfaces and their edges.
The Square Pennies were test pieces struck to assess public reaction. So, they were not struck to exacting minting standards, a tell-tale sign the lack of uniformity in the width of the edges.
Given to dignitaries to assess their reaction, there was no packaging and we know that not every dignitary was a collector and would have handled them with care. Some of the coins must have been tucked into a fob pocket for they have circulated. Others could have rattled around a top desk drawer. Or passed around to colleagues ... introducing multi possibilities of mishandling.
It is noted that the Kookaburra Square Pennies tone, some more strongly than others, a reflection on their storage in the intervening years.
A Square Penny with minimal, attractive toning and beautiful surfaces is a joy to behold. And a prized classic Australian coin rarity.
The 1919 Square Pennies were minted as test pieces at the Melbourne Mint for Government approval. The metal used was cupro-nickel.
In many ways this thinking was way ahead of its time. Australia did eventually introduce cupro-nickel coinage, but some 47 years later, when the nation went onto decimal currency in 1966.
For the buyer seeking the ultimate 1919 Square Penny, three pieces were struck in Sterling Silver as presentation pieces. There existence is attributed to the Deputy Mint Master of the Melbourne Mint, Mr Albert Le Souef.
Aside from his professional involvement in numismatics at the Melbourne Mint, Le Souef was a passionate collector, his preference for coins struck in silver.
He amassed a magnificent collection that was almost entirely donated to the Museum of Victoria.
His passion for silver coinage was the driving force behind the striking of three Square Pennies in Sterling Silver.
The first was struck depicting the Type 4 design. A second depicting the Type 5 and the third the design of the Type 6.
Each is unique. And each is stunning.