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.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Someone Created an Amazing LEGO Portrait of Fleabag's "Hot Priest" Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott as the "Hot Priest" in Fleabag.
Andrew Scott as the "Hot Priest" in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

It’s been almost a year and a half since fans first met the “Hot Priest”—a role created specifically for actor Andrew Scott—in season 2 of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning series Fleabag, and the character is still eliciting strong feelings and inspiring tributes of all kinds.

The latest creative tribute to the G&T-guzzling man of the cloth is a portrait assembled entirely from LEGO bricks—5340 of them, to be exact. It was made by Andy Bauch, a Los Angeles-based LEGO artist who has re-created everything from Mondrian paintings to self-portraits of Chuck Close. For this pop culture masterpiece, Bauch worked off a television still that shows Scott dressed in clerical black and illuminated by sunlight filtering through a church window.

Bauch used 10 shades of blue, green, and black to capture the nameless priest in all his godly glory. According to the video above, more than half of the 38-inch-by-28.5-inch artwork consists of square black bricks with four LEGO studs each. Overall, it took nearly 10,000 studs to complete the image. What we don’t know is how long it took to complete, though the artist did have two assistants to help him.

The portrait isn’t currently for sale, but anyone with a sizable LEGO collection and a fondness for tragicomic clergymen (or more specifically, for Andrew Scott portraying one) is welcome to try their hand at fashioning some Hot Priest wall art of their own. And if that project warrants re-watching Fleabag, so be it.