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A penny isn’t worth much. And it loses its status as legal tender once it’s been run through a souvenir penny-press machine. But Squished Penny Museum co-curator Pete Morelewicz sees plenty of value in the copper coins some people feel aren’t worth picking up off the street.
“The beautiful thing about squished pennies is that you can make tons of them, because most people don’t have anything better to do with pennies,” he says.
Recently, though, Morelewicz has dialed back his obsession. After running the Squished Penny Museum for 10 years with his wife, Christine Henry, out of their LeDroit Park home, the D.C. institution shut its doors for good on June 28.
“In the pantheon of museums, [the Squished Penny Museum] is pretty low,” Morelewicz acknowledges. “But it’s not a traditional museum, either. When people visit, they get to do squishing, they get to talk and swap stories. There’s much more give-and-take than a regular museum.”
Squished pennies, technically known as “elongated coins,” are pennies that have been rolled through a pair of steel dies, flattened, and embossed with a design. The first penny was squished in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago; according to Morelewicz, “[s]quishing peaked as a hobby at the 1939 World’s Fair, where there were about 80…different designs.” After waning in popularity for decades, squished-penny machines made a comeback in the ’80s at fairs and roadside attractions. Now, the machines are found in gift shops and rest stops across the country.
For Henry, squishing began as a hobby in college; Morelewicz began sharing her fascination after the two met in 1993 as students at Catholic University. In the summer of 1996, the couple drove across the country in search of squished-penny machines. By the end of the trip, they had collected close to 150 different pennies. “We thought, ‘Hey, this is really fun. Maybe we should build stuff and put them on exhibit,’ ” says Morelewicz. They created custom-made display cases, complete with interpretive material, to house their first exhibit, themed “The Open Road.” They then developed a ’zine (and, later, a Web site, squished.com) that invited people to see the collection at their house.
“People actually wanted to visit, which shocked us at first,” says Henry. “I was just amazed at how many people wanted to come.” Since its inception in 1996, thousands have visited the museum, and its archives have grown to more than 6,000 pennies that were donated or that Henry and Morelewicz have collected, purchased, or received in trade.
More than a decade after it was created, Henry and Morelewicz decided that the museum had run its course. “Even though it’s fun, there’s a lot of work that goes into keeping it up and doing research,” Morelewicz says. And with both holding full-time jobs—Henry at a federal agency that gives grants to museums (never to the Squished Penny Museum, she says) and Morelewicz at the Washington City Paper (where he serves as art director)—the museum was only open on weekends by appointment.
“Since the opening of the museum, pretty much every single weekend was devoted to having people over,” Morelewicz says. “[T]here were only so many hours that we could spend showing it to people.…At the end, we had to turn away over half the people who called for an appointment, which was disappointing—not just to them but to us.”
After a brief attempt to move the museum online in January, Henry and Morelewicz decided it was best to close the museum outright. But the couple hopes that someone else will pick up where they left off. “Things have changed so much since [we started the museum],” says Henry. “Now, with the Internet, it’s much easier to get connected with other squishers. I feel like we’ve planted the seed where somebody else could do a museum and take it in a different direction.”