Can a Souvenir Lead to the Slammer? The Denver Mint Weighs in on Elongated Coins

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and collector of elongated coins, having picked up over 600 in his travels across the United States.

Crushed penny. Pressed penny. Smushed penny. Squished penny. Regardless of the name, when you start to look, one sees them everywhere: at zoos and aquariums, museums of all kinds, gas stations, national parks and monuments, and even at National Archives locations such as the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home. The ubiquitous free standing cabinet in which one inserts a penny, pre-1982 ones work best and tarnish the least due the copper content, and anywhere from one to four quarters into a slide, and out emerges a pressed souvenir. But given the penny is irrevocably damaged during the process, are these souvenirs that first appeared during the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition even legal? In 1985 that very question was posed to the Denver Mint and so the answer can be found in Record Group 104, Records of the U.S. Mint, at the National Archives at Denver.

The Denver Mint is one of the oldest federal institutions in Colorado, first opening in the Colorado Territory as the Denver Mint Assay Office in 1863 to take advantage of the mining boom in the Rocky Mountains. For the next 46 years the office only assayed, melted, and cast gold and silver, but in 1904 plans were made to convert the office into a production mint. Two years later, in 1906, the new facility opened and is still in use today, making all denominations of coins. The mint also has a public relations office that fields questions from around the world regarding all aspects of the process, from how coins are made to how to order special sets, and some of that correspondence can be found in the series “Correspondence, Memorandums, and other Records, 1897-1994.” It is here where we find the legal question of elongated souvenir pennies posed.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 1985 Colorado resident Phyllis Egan visited San Francisco and took in the sights of Fisherman’s Wharf. While there she encountered street vendors pressing pennies into souvenirs and asked the vendor if pressing the penny in that way was legal, to which she was ignored. Bringing one home, a few days later Egan wrote to Rocky Mountain News Action Line columnist David Lewis to again inquire into the legality of the elongated coin.

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Letter from Phyllis Egan to David Lewis, May 28, 1985.

The Rocky Mountain News, a Colorado institution even older than the Denver Mint that shuttered only months before its 150th anniversary in 2009, wrote to the Denver Mint on June 5th asking for assistance. Action Line was on the case!

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Letter and envelope from David Lewis to Director of Public Relations, Denver Mint, June 5, 1985.

The letter was received by Superintendent Nora Hussey, a South Dakota native who ran the mint from 1981-1987, and was in turn passed on to Tito Rael, Chief of Exhibits and Public Sales Division. Rael reached out to Secret Service Agent James Griffiths, Special Agent in Charge of the Denver Field Office at the time, and the handwritten notes from the conversation lay out the legality of pressed souvenir pennies that is further explained in Hussey’s official letter to the newspaper. Under the 18 U.S. Code Sections 331 and 332, alteration of coins is only illegal when said alteration is used in a fraudulent manner, such as flattening a penny to the size of a nickel in order to use it as such, or in the case of gold and silver coins, the content is altered in such a way that that the weight and value is less than it should be. The souvenir pressed penny Ms. Egan brought home that weekend was indeed legal.

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Handwritten notes.
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Letter from Nora W. Hussey to David Lewis, June 10, 1985.

All images in this post are from box 4 in the series Correspondence, Memorandums, and other Records, 1897-1994 (National Archives Identifier 2329202). Department of the Treasury. Bureau of the Mint. U.S. Mint, Denver; Record Group 104: Records of the U.S. Mint, 1792-2007.

3 thoughts on “Can a Souvenir Lead to the Slammer? The Denver Mint Weighs in on Elongated Coins

  1. I’m wondering if Mr. Cody White can shed light on the 1986 Silver Eagle Dollar being minted at the Denver Mint ? John Mercanti lists the Denver Mint as a contributor in Minting them in his books on the subject Yet, none have ever been verified or authenticated as being from that Mint. Surely, someone would have saved one for Numismatical History. NARA claims not to have such DATA.

    1. Such questions come up from time to time, such as the big legal fight over the 1974 aluminum penny a few years back, but our records are often of no help. Production records start to drop off around 1970 and records noting metal deliveries shortly thereafter. The little we have from then up until 1994, our most recent records, are general administrative records, correspondence, public relations, and detailed series on the proposed construction of a new mint in the 1970’s and then the subsequent remodeling of the existing facility. I took a look quick through some of the newer series we have but nothing jumped out regarding the 1986 Silver Eagle Dollar. Outside a more detailed search, I’m not sure there is anything there.

      Given that many of such records they’ve generated over the past 50 years should be permanent, I have to assume they are all still under their legal custody, stored either on site or at the Federal Records Center. Any sort of objects, such as proofs and the like, are not collected by NARA so again, the Mint itself or an employee would have those. Last year the Newman Numismatic Portal through Washington University digitized the entirety of our RG 104 Denver Mint records, tens of thousands of pages, and can be browsed via the Internet Archive if one wanted to get a sense of what we do hold, found here;

      https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22U.S.%20Mint%22

      Hope this helps!

  2. I submitted a FOIA for info on the production of the 1986 Silver Eagle at Denver and was denied, then another on an appeal, and was denied once again. I was then told NARA would have the info I requested, but was redirected to the US Mint and once again met with “we have no info on the subject” and again was told the Denver Mint Archives would have the paper-trail. The Newman Portal mentions zilch on the issue.
    So, do you believe Mercanti was miss-informed ? AS a retired Purchasing and Inventory Manager there most certainly must be all types of paper-work available as to the inter-workings of such an undertaking by the Denver Mint. Your thoughts Sir ?

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