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.
"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."
Washingtonians Pete Morelewicz and Christine Henry started out much like the Ellises: a couple of sane travelers looking for inexpensive mementos.
The pennies "are an economical way to commemorate our travels, both in the space they take up and their cost," Morelewicz said. "But perhaps more importantly, they are a great conduit to meet and talk to fellow travelers."
So far, so good. The couple collected about 6,000 smashed pennies, also known as elongated coins. There's one with former President Bill Clinton's face on it from his home town of Hot Springs, Ark. Another marks the 1930s construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Morelewicz and Henry displayed their take in the Squished Penny Museum, which they opened in the front hallway of their home in the LeDroit Park area of Washington.
The museum closed two years ago, but not before Morelewicz lost part of a finger in an accident involving their electric penny-smashing machine.
The machines in public spaces, such as Disney World, the Keukenhof tulip gardens in the Netherlands and in some Bass Pro Shops, are decidedly low-tech. But the act of smashing a penny feels superhuman, as cold hard metal is pulverized at your hand.
Here's how it works, according to the Web site of the Elongated Collector. The penny is rolled through a mill-like machine consisting of reverse-engraved dies cut into steel rollers, similar to wringers on an old-fashioned washing machine. Coins are run between the rollers under tremendous pressure, estimated at about 22 tons. That presses the coin into the die and makes an imprint. The pressure also stretches the coin into an elongated shape.
The process is a close cousin to the childhood practice of placing coins on the railroad tracks. In Pittsburgh in the 1970s, dimes were the coin of choice. But they could be mighty hard to find after the train blasted by.
All these years later, it's a letdown to learn that, aside from being stupidly dangerous and involving trespassing, this probably didn't break the law. To quell squishers' anxieties nowadays, many machine manufacturers post legal advisories. The Penny-Press Machine Co. of White Bear Lake, Minn., says this:
"U.S. Title 18, Chapter 17, Section 331: Prohibits among other things, fraudulent alteration and mutilation of coins. This statute does not, however, prohibit the mutilation of coins if done without fraudulent intent if the mutilated coins are not used fraudulently."
In other words, it's okay to destroy money as long as you don't try to use it as money again. So you can press pennies at the Bass Pro Shops, but don't try to buy a fishing rod with them.
Unofficially, even the federal government seems to be on board with defacing its own work. Until recently, collectors point out, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had its own penny-smashing machine. But then again, the bureau makes paper currency. The U.S. Mint makes the coins.
Susan Feeney is senior editor of NPR's "All Things Considered."