Penny Pinching: A History of Coin Elongation Machines

Charlene McBride via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Charlene McBride via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Visitors to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—known at the time as the Columbian Exposition because it was the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage—had an opportunity to see a lot of innovative new ideas for the first time. Wrigley’s debuted their chewing gum; guests got to ride a Ferris Wheel; if you were hungry, you could eat an early version of Cracker Jack. Constipated? Shredded Wheat premiered there, too.

But the one attraction that the throng of visitors couldn’t seem to get enough of was the penny press machine. For a nickel, a press operator would accept a coin from a guest, stick it between two industrial-strength rollers exerting several tons of pressure, and apply a hand crank. Out would come the coin—usually a penny—that had been squished and deformed so it now looked like an abstract flourish in a painting. Oval-shaped, it bore a stamp that had been embossed by a mold on one of the rollers: “Columbian Exposition 1893.”

Bev Sykes via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Informally, they’re known as penny pressers, penny crushers, or squishers. To collectors, they’re coin elongation machines that produce elongated coins, flattened currency that uses your loose change to emboss a design depending on where the machine is found. In Roswell, New Mexico, machines will craft UFOs onto pennies; at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, penguins and other animals appear; at Disneyland, you can get Mickey Mouse and countless other characters.

Elongated coins are part of what numismatists called exonumia, or oddball coins that don’t fit any standard definition of money. (Add wooden nickels to the list.) Although steam-powered press machines had been around as early as 1833 (and there are elongated coins believed to be from around 1818), it wasn’t until the 1893 Chicago exhibition where a modified jeweler's mill was on display—courtesy of an unknown but fairly clever jeweler—that they experienced a surge in popularity. Part of it was the theatrical experience—stick a seemingly indestructible coin in and watch it change shape—and part of it was having an inexpensive way of memorializing a visit to a popular attraction.

The coin presses began popping up around the country before experiencing a lull in 1916, and it wasn’t until 1932 that tourist spots started to see an uptick in their use. Another resurgence happened in 1976, the bicentennial, when collectors were eager for commemorative material from the celebration.

The rising interest continued in the 1980s, thanks in some measure to the Disney parks incorporating them into many of their high foot-traffic locations. Disney even has a full-time employee, Rob Johnson, who's in charge of maintaining their machines, often turning to companies like EuroLink for the engraving dies. Engravers like Jim Dundon often slip in their initials as a kind of artist's signature. Collectors who are serious about elongates prefer to find or use pennies made pre-1982, before the U.S. Mint switched to a predominantly zinc composition that made elongated pennies look prematurely dark and worn.

Liz Lawley via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s not known exactly how many of the elongation machines are installed around the U.S., but there are enough in use that some collectors use their location as markers for cross-country travel, sometimes even traveling to a specific destination to fill a hole in their collection. (Because the number of stamped coins is so vast, collectors sometimes stick to a specific genre, like space travel or politics.)

They take these self-styled “squishin’ missions” pretty seriously: One elongate enthusiast profiled in Colorado Life magazine admitted to nearly breaking down in tears when she saw a child jam the machine she had driven hundreds of miles to access. Another notable exonumia fan, Pete Morelewicz, ran a museum in Washington, D.C. for several years, complete with a hard-luck tale: once, a machine devoured the tip of his finger.

Once a penny has been spit out to a wafer-thin shape, can it be reused as currency? Probably not, but the U.S. Mint isn’t going to make a big deal of it. But if you use the squished coin to pass off a nickel for a quarter, that’s a very different matter. Providing you aren’t mutilating currency for counterfeiting purposes, they don’t have a problem with the machines. Just watch your fingers.

17 Delicious Facts About Peeps

Getty Images
Getty Images

You know whether you prefer chicks to bunnies, fresh to stale, or plain to chocolate-covered. But there’s a lot you may not know about Peeps, everyone’s favorite (non-chocolate) Easter candy.

1. It used to take 27 hours to make a Peep.

A candy Peep being made
Getty Images

That was in 1953, when Sam Born acquired the Rodda Candy Company and its line of marshmallow chicks. Back then, each chick was handmade with a pastry tube. Just Born quickly set about automating the process, so that it now takes just six minutes to make a Peep.

2. An average of 5.5 million Peeps are made every day.

Peeps candies being made
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All of them at the Just Born factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In one year, the company makes enough peeps to circle the earth—twice!

3. Yellow chicks are the original Peep, and still the favorite.

Boxes of yellow chick Peeps
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Yellow bunnies are the second most popular color/shape combination. Pink is the second best-selling color.

4. The recipe has stayed pretty much the same.

Cooking up a batch of Peeps
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The recipe begins with a boiling batch of granulated sugar, liquid sugar, and corn syrup, to which gelatin and vanilla extract are later added. 

5. The equipment has also (mostly) stayed the same.

Peeps candies being made
Getty Images

Since Just Born turned Peeps-making into an automated process, the chicks have been carefully formed by a top-secret machine known as The Depositor. Created by Sam Born’s son, Bob, The Depositor could manufacture six rows of five Peeps apiece in a fraction of the time it took workers to form them by hand. And that same machine that Bob built has been keeping the Peeps flowing ever since. Until rather recently …

In 2014, the company announced that it was planning to renovate its manufacturing plant, including The Depositor. “It’s a little sad,” vice president of sales and marketing Matthew Pye told Candy Industry Magazine at the time. “Bob Born made it from scratch in 1954 and it allowed us to distribute and grow the brand nationally." 

6. The updated equipment means new Peeps innovations could be coming.

Making Peeps at the Just Born factory
Getty Images

“The investment in our marshmallow making process will allow for more efficiency, more consistency, improved quality, and additional innovation capabilities,” co-CEO Ross Born told Candy Industry magazine about the new depositor, which will be able to produce a wider variety of Peeps in all sizes. “The [old] Peeps line did one thing and one thing very well—cranking out chicks day in and day out. Five clusters, just in different colors,” Born said.

7. Peeps used to have wings.

They were clipped in 1955, two years after the first marshmallow chicks hatched, to give the candy a sleeker, more “modern” look.

8. The eyes are the final touch.

A close up of a yellow chick Peep
Getty Images

The final flourish for all of these squishy balls of sweetness is adding the eyes, which are made of carnauba—a non-toxic edible wax (that is also found in some shoe polishes and car waxes, plus many other candies).

9. Peeps may be destructible, but their eyes are not.

Making Peeps at the Just Born factory
Getty Images

In 1999, a pair of scientists at Emory University—dubbed “Peeps Investigators”—decided to test the theory that Peeps are an indestructible food. In addition to a microwave, the pair tested the candy’s vulnerability to tap water, boiling water, acetone, and sulfuric acid (they survived them all). When they upped the ante with some Phenol, the only things that didn’t disappear were the eyes. 

10. They really are everyone's favorite non-chocolate Easter candy.

For more than 20 years now, no other non-chocolate Easter candy has been able to compete with the power of Peeps. With more than 1.5 billion of them consumed each spring, Peeps have topped the list of most popular Easter treats for more than two decades.

11. There are sugar-free Peeps.

Counterintuitive, we know. But in 2007, the first line of sugar-free Peeps hit store shelves.

12. There are also chocolate-covered Peeps.

Chocolate-covered Peeps hit the market in 2010. Today there’s a full line of them for every occasion.

13. Peeps come in a variety of flavors.

Color and shape (i.e. yellow chick) are no longer the only ways to categorize a Peep. They now come in an array of flavors, including fruit punch, sour watermelon, lemon sherbet, blueberry, and pancakes and syrup.

14. Peeps lip balm is a thing.

Yep.

15. On New Year's Eve, a giant Peep is dropped in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


PEEPS®

The drop is done with a traditional chick that flashes different colors at midnight.

16. Believe it or not, Peeps are not Just Born's best-selling brand.

That honor belongs to Mike and Ike. (Sorry, Peepsters.)

17. They're a boon to a creativity.

Blue chick Peeps
Getty Images

All over the country, Peeps have become the preferred media for a number of highly anticipated annual art contests. (You can check out some of the coolest creations from Westminster, Maryland's PEEPshow here.)

Updated for 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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