As the hot weather settles in, some summer visitors roll into town. No, we’re not talking about mosquitoes here. Over night, a local park or large parking lot is instantly transformed. The fair has arrived. Stuffed animals are won, elephant ears are eaten, and rides do their best to unsettle those elephant ears.
Another common attraction of the fair was first introduced at one of our country’s most historical fairs: Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The festival introduced many firsts to the world. Some of these include:
- The Ferris Wheel
- Picture Postcards
- Juicy Fruit gum
- The clasp locker (precursor to the zipper)
As notable as these firsts are, to us coin enthusiasts out there, another first was much more exciting: the Elongated Coin.
The elongated coin, or pressed penny, has been a popular attraction for wide-eyed kids ever since its introduction. As with the very first pressed penny, these smushed coins have been collected as souvenirs and used to commemorate events for over a century.
While we know that the elongated coin was first introduced at the World’s Columbian Exposition, scholars have no idea who the inventor of the machine is. It remains a mystery, perhaps forever.
Perhaps you tried a penny on the train tracks as a kid. The machine, or penny press, operates much in the same way as a train does across its tracks. The force of the train smashes the penny to the point of “plastic deformation” and leaves it flat and stretched from a circle to an oval.
The first penny press machine was a jewelry mill that was then altered to leave an engraving on the penny. Jewelry mills, while usually used to flatten gold, proved the perfect coin elongating devices. Souvenir collectors could take a break from dancing to their favorite ragtime music to watch the penny press operator drop a penny in, turn a hand crank, and result in an elongated coin with a “Columbian Exposition 1893” engraving.
There are several reasons pennies are the coin most often chosen to be flattened and stretched out. Perhaps the biggest reason is the fact that pennies are worth one cent while nickels are worth five cents and so on and so forth. Once that coin is run through the penny press, it’s no longer an accepted form of money. It has become something different.
Another reason pennies are more popular than the other types of coins is its makeup. As the metals used to make pennies result in a darker coin, the darker shade of a penny allows the engraving to be move easily seen. In fact, the older and mored tarnished the penny, the better your souvenir will turn out.
While we may prefer to use our pennies in the U.S., Canadians are technically supposed to used blank “slugs” in their penny press machines. This is because it is illegal to mutilate Canadian coins in Canada.
Today, penny press machines are typically automated and not turned by a hand crank, though a few are still around. They are also as popular as ever. There are so many varieties of elongated coins with so many different possible engravings on all the different coins that collecting them all is nearly impossible. Collectors tend to be specialists, only collect early elongated coins or ones that commemorate certain kinds of events.
Next time you’re at the fair, make sure you stop by the penny press machine. They are unique pieces of Americana that have been producing cherished souvenirs for over 100 years.