Whenever I travel I make sure to tuck several bright, shiny pennies into my handbag. Not because I want to spend them; after all, what can a person purchase for a penny in the current economy?* I carry them because I want to pay 50 times their worth to have them stretched by machines until the coins are almost unrecognizable as U.S. currency; And if unusual images and messages can be compressed onto their surface, so much the better.
The penny is rolled between two steel rollers with a gap between them that is slightly smaller than the thickness of the penny. When the penny is forced between the rollers, it makes an elongated coin. Different engravings can be located on one or both of the steel rollers. As the penny passes through the rollers the tremendous pressure impresses the design onto the coin.
There is an almost illicit thrill in creating an elongated penny. Since it is illegal to deface U.S. Currency, it would seem that a machine designed to crush a penny would be on the wrong side of the law. Yet apparently it isn’t. In 1980 the Department of the Treasury sent an official letter to Vance Fowler regarding his machines that compress pennies. The letter reads in part:
As you are already aware, a federal statute in the criminal code of the United States (18 U.S.C. 331), indeed makes it illegal if one “fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales or lightens” any U.S. coin. However, being a criminal statute, a fraudulent intent is required for violation. Thus, the mere act of compressing coins into souvenirs is not illegal, without other factors being present. (http://www.parkpennies.com/pressed-penny/penny-pressing-legal.htm)
Anyone can swagger up to a machine, put two quarters and a penny into the slot, and create little oval shaped copper-colored metal disks. Even if a U.S. Treasury Department employee was standing next to the machine, he/she could not stop you.**
The first machines were created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that was held in Chicago. Yes—the Land of Lincoln was the first place that pennies were elongated. The message pressed into the surface was simple: It included the name of the event and the year. Since then the machines have flourished. There are thousands of machines available worldwide. Pennycollector.com maintains a list of machines here. Quite a few are available at Disneyworld and Disney Land Parks.
Stewart Anderson and Shawn Slifer created a steampunk version of the penny smasher in 2013 for the Brooklyn Public library. The machine works via a hand-turned crank instead of the usual electrical version. The imprints all showcase critically endangered or extinct animals from North America (Harrington, 2015). I would think it should be steam-powered in order to be called steampunk, but perhaps that would be impractical in a library setting.
Other than making sure to have a few shiny pennies on my person, I am not a dedicated collector of smashed, elongated, or crushed pennies. There are those who travel with containers of uncirculated pre-1973 pennies to use in the machines. (These pennies will not tarnish like the newer versions, especially if you only handle them while wearing a glove.) There are web sites dedicated to selling and/or trading the elongated pennies. Artists work with the pennies to create jewelry, belts, and other items of apparel. There is even an entire museum dedicated to one couple’s collection.
*There is a town near my home that still has penny parking meters. You get 15 minutes parking for one penny. The meters only accept pennies. The town cannot be making money from these meters. Think of the maintenance. Think of the poor meter maids (or meter men) collecting pennies all day. The economic loss must be staggering. I’m sure they only keep them to annoy visitors—or to collect parking ticket money from people who don’t have pennies to feed the meters because no one really carries pennies anymore.
**I suppose the Treasury Department Employee could stop you if he/she were bigger or stronger than you and blocked your path, but that really wouldn’t be sporting.
Harrington, R. (2015). This steampunk penny crusher was made by hand. Popular Science. Retrieved from https://rebeccalynnharrington.com/2015/11/17/this-steampunk-penny-crusher-was-made-by-hand/