Pennies Become Souvenirs When Put Through a Press

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Susan Feeney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Water races down the stainless-steel scales of a giant sculpture at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. Steps away, the gift shop bursts with colorful stuffed penguins, rubber alligators and other tempting toys. But Keelin Quirk, a Sidwell Friends School fifth-grader, is not distracted.

The 11-year-old is tinkering with a plexiglass and metal machine.

You've seen them. Slide in two quarters and a penny, pick an imprint and, with a few turns of the crank, clink, out drops a wafer-thin copper streak of a souvenir.

"It's really cool how a machine can change a penny into a little sort-of coin, but with a penguin or a turtle or something on it," says Keelin.

People have been quietly pressing, smashing and squishing coins for more than a century. The odd practice dates to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Today, as the value of the penny gets smaller and smaller, the opportunities to reduce them to crushed memories are increasing.

But why?

"I just could not figure out why people would be interested in smashing a penny," said Debra McGuire, vice president of merchandise for the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the aquarium. "I will tell you it was a hard sell at first [for me]. But the vendor was persuasive. I gave it a whirl, and I am sure glad I did."

Three machines (one at the aquarium, along with ones at the zoo and insectarium that the institute also runs) have brought in as much as $10,000 a year, after a 50-50 split with the vendor, McGuire says.

"Why do people like them? Not sure," she adds. "But they sure like them. We watch children and adults alike stand in line time after time, visit after visit, smashing their penny and adding it to their penny-smashing collectors' book that we just happen to sell in the gift shops."

A national collectors group counts thousands of penny-squishing machines across the United States and in 40 other countries. There is "copper" crushing at roadside attractions, truck stops, zoos, museums, gift shops, stadiums and airports as well as at more everyday places such as sporting-goods stores and schools.

At a rest stop along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the penny imprint choices include praying hands, one that's "Good for a Hug and a Kiss" and one with an Amish buggy in honor of nearby Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

"It's neat to watch the penny get pressed," says Johnnie Ellis of Fredericksburg. He's standing with his 4-year-old son, Shean, as he cranks the machine at the turnpike rest stop. "It's a fairly cheap keepsake."

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