Tuesdays at Children’s Fairyland are comparatively quiet this time of year. The park is open only on weekends, giving me the chance to catch up on correspondence and phone calls. Since my office is the one closest to the front door, I’m usually the first responder for FedEx, UPS and other deliveries. Last Tuesday, I kept getting interrupted. I was admittedly a bit cranky by the time a teenager knocked on our glass door.

“Can I help you?” I asked. He said he’d like to be admitted to the park to use our penny-press machine. “We’re closed,” said the evil fairy (me).

“But I’m from Utah, and on a plane home in an hour, and I have to get these pennies for my collection,” he pleaded.

This is when it’s tough wearing the big wings at Fairyland. “Okay, come on in,” I relented, unlocking the three gates and doors that lead to our “commercial elongated machine,” as it’s officially called.

Until young Frank Martin came into my life, I had no idea that there are hordes of collectors out there for whom there exist websites, four comprehensive books, jewelry, collector books, smart phone apps with alerts for nearby machines, and an online trading tool that, for the price of a subscription, provides access to serious collectors from around the world. Pennycollector.com is very blunt about the allure of this particular diversion. “Less like a hobby…more like an addiction,” it proudly states.

The addiction has been flourishing for more than a century. It’s generally accepted that the first pressed tokens were made during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. An elongated coin is made when it’s forced between two steel rollers, where it is squeezed and lengthened under tremendous pressure while an engraved design is impressed into the coin. The penny press machine was introduced in 1971, but it was only with the vast introduction of commercial elongated machines into the marketplace in 1985—primarily at amusement parks and historic venues—that the hobby really took off.

I bought Fairyland’s current machine some years back, thanks to a generous donor who realized that the old-fashioned, hand-cranked mechanical machine was the gift that would keep on giving to our nonprofit park (with minimal maintenance required).

And give it does: We earn about $2000 per year from our little smasher, which features alternating images of our Magic Key, the Jolly Trolly, Willie the Whale and the old woman’s shoe.

My new friend Frank Martin is 15 years old. He began collecting when he was just 5. He remembers pressing his first penny at Ellis Island in New York. His collection now numbers 450, and he and his family now plan their trips around where the pressed penny machines are. “It’s a really fun way to see fun places,” he told me. He believes that other souvenirs, like T-shirts or hats, lack permanence, whereas the pennies are indestructible. He also likes the physicality of hand-cranking thousands of pounds of pressure to create his mementos. It’s tough when he visits a big city and has a lot of cranking to do. “You get a good workout,” he says.

Although Frank receives pressed pennies from friends who know his obsession, it’s the travel, the stories and the camaraderie with other collectors that he loves. “I would never sell my collection, not even for a million dollars,” he says. “It would be like selling all of my memories of everywhere I’ve been.”

While he was still in the Bay Area, he visited San Francisco’s Chinatown, where a woman behind a counter gave him a rare pressed penny commemorating the Golden Gate Bridge’s 50th anniversary.

That, plus the four pennies he got from Fairyland, was part of the reason he considers this latest “squishin’ mission”—yes, that’s what they call them—a big success. Now I’m part of Frank’s Oakland memory, and he’s part of mine. You never know who’ll come knocking, and sometimes it pays to say “yes.”

One Response

  1. Becky A.

    A fellow penny squisher just posted this article on FB. Convenient timing for me because I’m headed up to the East Bay with my 16-month-old next weekend to visit my parents! I was considering taking her to Fairyland, now I’m seriously considering it. I still have my key from when I was a kid. I remember loving Fairyland as a kid — the crooked house, the whale…..I can’t wait to take my daughter there so she can create her own loving memories of it! And add to my (and her) elongated penny collection 🙂

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