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.

The Hallmark Channel’s First-Ever ‘Christmas Con’ Is Comin’ to Town

macniak/iStock via Getty Images
macniak/iStock via Getty Images

Bookworms have Book Con, comic lovers have Comic Con, and now, courtesy of the Hallmark Channel, Christmas fanatics will finally get the gift they’ve surely written to Santa about more than a few times: Christmas Con.

News 12 New Jersey reports that the festive convention will take place at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison from November 8 through November 10.

If you binge-watch Hallmark Channel’s schmaltzy feel-good flicks faster than St. Nick scarfs down a giant gingerbread cookie, this is your chance to catch its biggest stars in one decked-out hall. Mean Girls (2004) alum Jonathan Bennett will emcee the convention, The Walking Dead’s Alicia Witt will perform a concert, and panels will include guests like Chad Michael Murray, Melissa Joan Hart, and Bennett’s former Mean Girls co-star Lacey Chabert (who will hopefully be showered with enough candy canes to make up for the time that her character, Gretchen Weiners, got none).

In addition to its celebrity events, Christmas Con will also include a Christmas market with gifts, handmade decorations, and holiday treats. You can also don your most lurid holiday sweater for a chance to win a $500 grand prize in the Ugly Christmas Sweater contest, or bake a gingerbread house fit for a prince in the Gingerbread Wars, which could win you $1000.

If you're hoping to attend, you might have to hunt for resale tickets on social media or third-party sites—the passes are already almost sold out on the official website. If you’re willing to shell out a little extra for a snapshot with romance royalty, most of the stars are offering photo opportunities for around $50.

Looking for a less intense way to welcome the holly, jolly holiday season? Watch the 20 best Christmas movies, Die Hard (1988) and all.

[h/t News 12 New Jersey]

Meet Holly: The Winner of Alaska's ‘Fat Bear Week’ Competition at Katmai National Park

Katmai National Park and Preserve via Flickr, Public Domain
Katmai National Park and Preserve via Flickr, Public Domain

It's that time of year when the air gets a little colder, the days get a little shorter, and the bears get much, much fatter. Every year, in celebration of the impressive, pre-hibernation transformations of its brown bears, Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve hosts a competition to determine which fat bear reigns supreme. As NPR reports, Holly (a.k.a. Bear 435) is the official winner of 2019's Fat Bear Week.

In order to build enough bulk to survive the winter, brown bears must eat a year's worth of food in six months. After gobbling as much salmon as they can find, their mass typically peaks in October, which is also when Katmai holds its annual competition.

This year, the park pitted 12 coastal brown bears against each other in a March Madness-style bracket. Images of the chunky contestants were shared on Facebook, and followers cast votes for their favorite fat bears by "liking" them.

A before and after shot of Holly, winner of Katmai National Park and Preserve's Fat Bear Week competition
Katmai National Park and Preserve via Flickr, Public Domain

Holly beat runner-up Lefty by nearly 14,000 votes. The before-and-after shot above makes it easy to see why: Between July 12 and September 22, 2019, she grew from a scrawny bear into a hulking beast. The preserve announced her win on Facebook, writing: "She is fat. She is fabulous. She is 435 Holly. And you voted her the 2019 Fat Bear Week Champion. All hail Holly whose healthy heft will help her hibernate until the spring. Long live the Queen of Corpulence!"

Holly's new body is good for more than making her an internet sensation. The fatter a bear is, the more likely it is to survive the winter. But other factors, like climate change waking hibernating bears earlier than usual, still pose a threat.

[h/t NPR]

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