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.
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!
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.
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.