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Two Pennies for Your Thoughts


“The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry must be one of the world’s best-known short stories, and perhaps the very best-known short story with a Christmas theme. I read it to my kids last night. My daughter (fourth grade) noticed something funny about how it starts. Here are the first three sentences of “The Gift of the Magi”:

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

This can’t be correct. If sixty cents of it was in pennies, that would leave $1.27. Wouldn’t there have to be 62 pennies? Or maybe 57 pennies?

O. Henry was a pen name for William Sydney Porter. He was once convicted of embezzling from a bank and spent more than three years in prison. You’d think that the guy would know how to count pennies. Or maybe not. At any rate, the opening lines of “The Gift of the Magi” don’t add up.

UPDATE: A bunch e-mails already — and several have pointed to the likeliest solution: the two-cent piece. (There were also three-cent pieces.) Here’s one reader:

I would not be quite so quick to mock Mr. Porter’s arithmetic.  You likely did not know that the US minted a two cent piece until 1873 and William Sydney Porter would have been well familiar with them from his boyhood.  As the story (though published in 1906) does not give much of clue as to the year of its setting, it is not a stretch to imagine a two cent piece among Della’s little treasure trove.  I’ll leave you to do the math!


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