At an offbeat museum in LeDroit Park, quarters are chump change but pennies are priceless.
Damn those Osmonds! This was just the sort of black-hearted trickery those dentally gifted showbiz miscreants thrive on.
It was summer’s end, 1996. Pete Morelewicz and Christine Henry, a dating duo from Washington, D.C., had just traveled thousands of miles across the United States. They were tanned; they were tired; they were running out of cash. They had spent their entire vacation canvassing hundreds of tourist trapsboth obvious and out-of-the-way, both spit-shine-clean and desperate for disinfectantwith the sole intention of finding a particular brand of kitschy collector’s item: the squished penny.
The days were growing shorter, and the monthslong quest, both exhilarating and exhausting, was coming to an end. Sacks upon sacks of mangled lootfar more disfigured treasure than either of them had ever dreamed of discoveringhad already been safely stashed away in their getaway car. Las Vegas! Mount Rushmore! Sylvester the Mummy! They were closing in on 150 pieces in all. What more did they need? What more could they find?
They should have quit when they were ahead.
Despite the mountainous piles of embossed copper bounty glistening in their car’s back seat, the gutsy pair wanted one more big score, the take of all takes. Yes, the thrill of the chaseof that blessed blast of eureka! euphoriahad taken over. They were powerless to ignore the pull.
So, despite the meticulously planned
TripTik stubbornly pointing them home, Morelewicz and Henry made a 30-mile detour to the strangest land of all: a haven for Love Boat castoffs who soft-shoe for food, a hideaway for Vegas burnouts who crave one last standing ovation, a neon-splattered oasis where, legend has it, Charo works the graveyard shift at the local Waffle House.
That’s right: They were headed to Branson, Mo.
And little did Morelewicz and Henry know thatwhen perhaps their greatest souvenir was just a handful of lint-kissed coins awaythe couple would be foiled by none other than the entire singing and dancing (and skating) Osmond family.
Call them whatever you like: “smushed” or “smashed” or “squooshed” or “skushed” or “stretched” or even “squeezed.”
Copperheads Morelewicz and Henry, curators of D.C.’s Squished Penny Museumor SPMreally don’t care how you refer to the elongated road-trip trinkets. Just as long as you keep feeding Mr. Lincoln to those ubiquitous tourist-trap machines and appreciate the souvenir you’ve made all by yourself. What the heck: The right to squish is usually only 51 cents (two quarters plus your doomed penny), and, as far as Morelewicz is concerned, a creamed coin is far more “economical and democratic” than a lousy T-shirt.
The history lesson starts early: “Squished pennies were first made popular as souvenirs at world’s fairs and other such events of national pride,” says Morelewicz, adding that the 1939 New York World’s Fair had some 80 different designs to choose from. “World War II cut deeply into the elongated coin hobby, as moneyand metalbecame more coveted. After the war, the spotlight on the hobby faded, and the majority of coins were squished by private rollers: A small, dedicated group of elongated enthusiasts designed, engraved, and rolled their own issues, keeping the hobby alive.
“Since the early ’90s,” Morelewicz continuesgetting more and more enthusiastic “there has been a huge increase in the number of commercial machines across the U.S.heck, worldwide. The commercial machine has breathed new life into the hobby, generating a following which rivals, if not eclipses, the public fervor the coins enjoyed back in the early part of the century.”
Needless to say, these two are serious about their squishtory.
Morelewicz, a 27-year-old graphic designer, and Henry, a 29-year-old museum-grants officer (no, she hasn’t given herself one), run the District’s treasure trove of tourist-trade tchotchkes out of their spacious home in LeDroit Park. The SPM’s current exhibit, “The Open Road: Touring America Today,” spreads out over six tall Smithsonian-quality panels filled with some 40 shiny squished pennies each. Pretty much the entire countryor at least the entire country’s various tourist destinationsis represented in the impressive display, from Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, Md., to the Space Needle in Seattle. Vermont, it seems, is the only state from which the SPM has yet to land a smashed souvenir.
There are about 250 squished pennies currently on hand for public perusal, and there are even more (many more) tucked away in the wondrous SPM catacombs. Here you’ll find copper embossed with the visages of Roots author Alex Haley and one-armed major-league pitcher Jim Abbott and Symbionese Liberation Army hostage Patricia Hearst. You’ll see coins dedicated to the 1943 sinking of the USS Chicago and the 1973 energy crisis and the 1986 Challenger explosion. There’s even a bachelor-party penny christening some lucky guy the “Official Panty Man.” (Full disclosure: For fear of losing their establishment’s all-ages image, the SPM honchos gave me the Official Panty Man penny to take home, thus cleansing themselves of any untoward squishiness. Let it be known: The SPM is once again a G-rated establishment.)
But the SPM’s newest, most squishtastic attraction sits smack dab in the middle of the roomy display space and looks like something from the mind of Tim Burton. This metal monstrositycapable of 22 tons of pressure!is the museum’s crown jewel: a 4-foot-tall hand-cranked squisher that churns out both one- and two-sided SPM-branded pennies. No visitor, Morelewicz informs me, is allowed to leave the museum without “gettin’ squishy with it”although the art of rolling your own admittedly takes a little getting used to. (Bad, illegible squishes are called “uh-ohs,” and I’m fairly certain I hold the record for consecutive uh-ohs.)
As guests are squishing out their very own pennies”There’s a lot of power behind a squish,” Henry says matter-of-factlythey will undoubtedly be warned of the evils of “stinky zinkies”: Prior to 1982, pennies were 97 percent copper; since 1982, however, pennies have been 97 percent zinc, with just a minor amount of copper for coating. These modern pennies appear smeared and cloudy when squished. “It’s really embarrassing,” Henry says about her fear of zinkies, “to go up to a cash register and say, ‘Here’s a quarter; can I have some pennies?but I don’t want the shiny ones. Can I have the dirtiest, crappiest ones you can find in your drawer?’”
The Osmond Family Theater: Has a blissfully cheeseball locale ever sounded like such a squished-penny mecca? Surely they must have a squisher insider. Think of those wide copper smiles! Those towering cast-in-penny perms! Maybe an impromptu trek into Branson wasn’t such a lousy idea after alleven though Morelewicz describes the city thus: “Pick everybody out of the buffet line in Vegas and stick them in the street. In Branson, the shows are at two o’clock and six o’clock, so that in between, you can get the early-bird dinnerand be in bed by eight.”
Morelewicz and Henry rushed into the theatertheir eyes bouncing from one nauseating Osmond artifact to anotherbut couldn’t find a squisher anywhere. Refusing to panic, they beelined into the gift shop and breathlessly, hopefully, asked the woman behind the counter.
“Yes,” she replied in a kudzu-smothered drawl. “We have one of those. It’s over in the corner.”
The corner! As Morelewicz wrote in Squissue No. 1 of The Centinel, the SPM’s quarterly newsletter: “I turned to see it and she was right, boy, did they have one. It was one of those super penny machines with four designs, all different, and none of those generic lucky pennies or Lord’s prayer, which you can get anywhere; all four were of the Osmonds! It was a dream come true.”
And then the gift shop lady, her warm Southern accent going cold, uttered those dreaded words: “But it never works.”
In 1990, at New York City’s Central Park Zoo, Henry squished her very first penny. Morelewicz wouldn’t experience his inaugural squish until some five years later: On July 4, 1995, while backpacking across Europe with Henrywhom he’d been dating for about a yearMorelewicz caught the fever in Berlin, squishing away all but his last pfennig (which he needed for subway fare back to his hotel). For both, they agree, “it was love at first squish.”
At first, they displayed their squished pennies on the mantel in their old Columbia Heights apartment. (“Look, we have a museum,” Henry stated oh-so-prophetically way back when.) As the collection grew, they started making cases for their precious finds; as the collection grew even bigger, they started writing descriptions. And in June 1997, the SPM, which would move to LeDroit Park three months later, was officially opened to the public. (By the way, the SPM is free for everyone; however, given that pennies, squished or otherwise, don’t exactly pay the bills, Morelewicz and Henry operate the museum on a reservations-only basis. For more information, check out www.squished.com.)
“The main focus of the museum is to educate people about [squished pennies],” says Morelewicz, who recently signed the SPM team up to give a squishertation to a local Cub Scout troop. “It’s not just a collection that you come and flip through. There’s some interpretive material, too. And we’re here if people have any questions….I think people aren’t expecting a legitimate museum, so we really do strive for that.”
“There’s a lot of sharing stories about how we got stuff,” Henry says about her role as both host and curator. “We have a lot of families that come through. Little kids will bring their whole collection and spill it out on the floor. They’ll want to show us each one they have, and that’s really cool, too.”
As Morelewicz and Henry have discovered, they certainly aren’t the only squished-penny fanatics around. They figure there are hundreds of thousands of collectors in the world todayat least a lot more than people realizemany of whom are still on the lookout for the Holy Grail of squished pennies: the 1893 Columbian Exposition 1-cent piece, made in Chicago for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ journey to America and believed to be the first squished penny ever made. (The SPM has yet to land one of thesealthough it does boast a penny from the 1901 World’s Fair.) There are also numerous books devoted to the hobby, with the Encyclopedia of the Modern Elongated by noted squishtorian Angelo A. Rosato widely considered to be the collector’s bible.
Each month, the SPM curators receive numerous calls and lettersnot to mention copper donations and trade requestsfrom fellow hobbyists, many of whom are even more dedicated to the pursuit than the SPM staff.
“It’s gotten overwhelming with how many pennies we have,” Henry says. “It’s not just the pennies that we ourselves collect. All of my friends and everybody at work gets me pennies. People say, ‘You know, I just couldn’t walk past this machine without thinking of you.’ And they throw three or four pennies at me.” Most of the odder items, however, have been either purchased from private dealers or given to them by die-hard SPM fans. (“People who have done something outstanding for the museum,” Morelewicz says, are made members of the SPM Copper Club, their names displayed on a panel near the entrance of the museum.)
Take Dave Brown, for instance, who contributed an essay to The Centinela ‘zine that also features interviews, puzzles, and poetrydetailing a recent visit to a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop: “As I unleashed two cokes and a morning coffee, I glanced over at the adjacent urinal. Cutting through the glare of mis-directed liquid relief was this gleaming statement of squished penny art. I donned the proper hand protection and removed the penny from its yellow tinted home. Upon sufficient cleaning, cleansing and sterilization I transported the squished penny…in a trade-mark Igloo cooler down lovely Interstate 95 for donation to Petey and Christine….”
With so many new squished artifacts showing up every month, Morelewicz and Henry are discussing a new exhibit slated for this summerwhen the SPM gets most of its visitorsthat would pay tribute to “the monuments of man, something with engineering and architecture.”
Someday, the SPM curators would like to take a portion of their collection out on the road, a full-time moving-across-America museum. “The idea is that we would take our museum and pack it in an Airstream trailer,” Morelewicz says. “We would spend the winter contacting different groups to speak to and display forbigger events than the Cub Scouts: county fairs, state fairs, big gatherings, that sort of thing. We’d design and engrave rolls for each event. And then in the summer, we’d take our machine, take the museum, and roll our pennies for people. People would pay us like they pay the jugglers and vendors.”
Quitting their jobs, buying an Airstream, and taking the SPM to the highwaysnow that would be a road trip.
Several months after detailing their horrific Branson experience in The Centinel, Morelewicz and Henry received a bulkyand altogether mysteriouslime-green envelope in the mail. Expecting perhaps even more Elvis-embossed copperor, God forbid, another “Official Panty Man” pennythe SPM curators were quite surprised to find something else entirely.
Inside the envelope was a complete setfour mint-condition items in allof the elusive Osmond Family Theater squished pennies. Later, another collector also gifted the SPM with a full Osmond set. Both contributorssquishers of the highest order indeedwere made esteemed members of the Copper Club.
And the final Osmondian twist? A few years ago, producers of the since-canceled Donny & Marie talk show called the SPM about sending some pennies for a feature on “oddball museums”although they had no clue about the great Branson debacle. “We were on there with the toilet-seat-art museum and the toilet-paper museum,” Henry says. “We didn’t actually get to go…but we sent the ‘Osmonds on Ice’ pennies, and that’s the one they held up.”
“Yeah,” Morelewicz says with a shrug. “They called us a ‘strange museum.’” CP