Small Cost, Big Fun
Visit any theme park, zoo, museum, or gift shop, escape with your souvenir budget down only 51 cents, and any parent will say you’ve done an exceptional job.
It sounds improbable, if not impossible, but small-cost/big-fun is only one of the draws that attract adults and kids to the more than 100-year-old hobby of making and collecting elongated coins.
You may know them as pressed pennies: Put two quarters and a penny into a machine, choose a design, and crank the handle until your penny clinks out — flattened and stretched into an oval and bearing new artwork (the quarters are the fee for using the machine).
Families can find these machines pretty much anywhere their travel takes them, from the obvious (theme parks and tourist hot spots) to the unexpected (rest areas, restaurants, coffee shops). A free app for iOS devices, PennyFinder, lists the locations of all reported machines in each state and internationally. The app can even use a phone’s GPS to alert users to nearby machines, making it easy to take off on an impromptu “squishin’ mission.”
Once you start looking for machine locations, you may be surprised where you find them.
“Sometimes when you see those [machine locations], you think, ‘Well, good heavens, I’ve been in that town 100 times,” says Nancy Wooten, president of The Elongated Collectors, (tecnews.org), a nonprofit organization of more than 650 hobbyists, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer. “So the next time you go to that town, you have to stop and go find that machine.”
And while choosing a design and transforming a coin is fun, it’s the scavenger hunt aspect — finding the machine — that attracts collectors new and veteran to the hobby.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” Wooten says. “Where else can you go and get a souvenir for 51 cents?”
The first elongated coins date back to the early 1890s World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and since, hand-crank and mechanical machines have been designed and built to commemorate locations, events, and more. Designs are engraved onto a roller (known as a die), which sits up against another roller. The penny is pressed through the rollers and the design from the die is transferred onto the coin. While penny machines are the most common, occasionally you will find one that elongates dimes or quarters.
Before the coin-operated machines of today existed, enthusiasts designed and made their own, engraving the dies, hand rolling the coins, and selling or trading them. Wooten says an elongated coin pioneer named Vance Fowler developed the idea of putting a coin-operated machine in a department store in Oregon. Fowler designed and built it himself.
“It was about the size of one of today’s refrigerators,” she notes.
Fowler was also one of the people responsible for introducing elongated coins to Disneyland. Today, dozens of machines can be found throughout every Disney theme park and resort worldwide. (Currently, there are 31 machines in The Magic Kingdom alone, not to mention those at every other Disney park and property in Orlando. Presscoins.com offers a free PDF detailing the current location and design of every Disney Parks machine in Orlando — it runs 21 pages.)
Fowler was one of two men who designed and pitched a machine to the Walt Disney Company in the ’80s for use at Disneyland. The company chose the other designer’s machine, Wooten says, because Fowler refused to sell his to Disney outright.
Elongated coin machines (pennies, dimes, and quarters) can be found today through every Disney property, making for what may be the parks’ most inexpensive and fun souvenir. In between rides and shows, families can enjoy a scavenger hunt throughout the parks and property in an attempt to find their favorite designs. Visitors to Disneyland can find the latest updates on designs and locations at parkpennies.com. All the Disney Parks routinely swap out the designs on the machines, thereby offering them for limited times.
While different elongated coin collectors may enjoy collecting specific “genres,” such as those collected from zoos, historic places, or wayside locations, Wooten specializes in Disneyland coins.
“We lived near Disneyland and got really into it there and met other collectors. They become like a family,” she says.
On a good day with manageable traffic, Wooten is now about a three-hour drive away from Disneyland. She tries to visit the park “at least once a month because they’re bringing out new machines all the time.”
Wooten got hooked on collecting while traveling on business. On a visit to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, she came across a vendor with a hand-roll machine.
“I’d pick them up and take them home to my daughter. After retirement, I repossessed those old coins of hers,” she laughs. “They’re in our family collection now.” Wooten estimates her collection in the “hundreds of thousands.”
Serious collectors prefer to use pennies issued before 1982 (known as “coppers”). Pennies dated 1982 to today consist of 97.5% zinc with a thin coating of copper, while those issued in 1981 and earlier were 95% copper.
“When you press a zinc coin, it causes tears in the copper surface and you’ll see little bits of silver showing — that’s the zinc showing through,” Wooten notes. “It’s not unattractive at that point , but as time goes on, the air gets to it and that starts turning black. Under severe conditions it can eat holes through it.”
One common question: Is it legal? Yes! While U.S. law "prohibits the mutilation, diminution, and falsification of United States coinage,” that statute only pertains to those who alter a coin in an attempt to defraud. Since elongated coins are a hobby and aren’t intended to be used as legal tender, pressing pennies is fine.
Once collectors get a coin, the last thing they want to do, in fact, is part with it. Many store their coins in collector books that display the art; they can even be turned into bracelets, necklaces, and more. Pennycollector.com offers a store with myriad coin-displaying or –wearing options, as well as tips, history, FAQs, and a list of machine locations (the Website equivalent of the Penny Finder app).