When is a penny not a penny? When it is squished, squashed, smushed, pressed or rolled. The official name of the flattened, oval, engraved pennies sold at museums, zoos and other tourists sites is "elongated" pennies.

Elongated-penny collectors say they're on squishin' missions as they hunt for those hand-cranked or electric machines that turn normal Lincoln pennies into special souvenirs.

The first elongated coin, pressed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was actually a nickel, but penny machines are more common now. Of course it was once popular to place pennies on railroad tracks, then wait for a train to roll over them -- a very dangerous practice that produced a flattened blob.

Machine-squished pennies are much safer, plus they imprint scenes of landmarks, special events, animals or people associated with a popular place. Disney characters, sports arenas, presidents and even dinosaurs have their images rolled onto pennies. Elongated pennies also are used to commemorate personal milestones such as births or weddings. One collector proposed to his future wife by handing her a penny stamped with "Will you marry me?"

The process of creating a squished penny starts with artwork that has been reduced to penny size to make sure it looks good. An engraver then etches the design onto a steel cylinder called a die. That is put into a specially designed machine, which exerts about 22 tons of pressure to make a squished penny.

Pennies made before 1982 are better for squishing because they are mostly copper. Newer pennies are mostly zinc, which doesn't crush quite as well.

So, when a penny gets squished and a new design is put on it, where does Lincoln's face go? The immense pressure flattens the image of our 16th president, just as ironing flattens the wrinkles in a shirt.

In the Washington area, a squished penny usually costs 76 cents. While trading three quarters and a regular penny for one elongated penny does not seem like a great bargain, squishedpenny collectors say that the thrill of finding new designs keeps them squishin'.

As long as you don't try to use these coins as money, it is perfectly legal in the United States to squish as many pennies as you like.

-- Ann Cameron Siegal

If you're on a mission for some squishin', there's a lot of designs to imprint on your coins. The first elongated coins were pressed in 1893.