Independence Hall penny souvenirs

Pennies are more trouble than they’re worth.

Seriously. Pennies cost the government more to make than their actual value. Keeping them in circulation costs American taxpayers $39 million each and every year. Pennies are so useless that Canada got rid of them altogether in 2012 — and there’s a contingent of advocates pushing to do the same in the United States.

If you’re sick of carrying around copper, there’s a way to make pennies interesting: turn them into Philly souvenirs.

There are least 12 locations around Philadelphia that currently have working elongated coin machines run by a company called The Penny Men. Also known as penny presses, these devices use two steel rollers to compress pennies into tokens featuring customized designs.

It’s a great trick to show your kids, or just a fun trinket to end up with. Most penny presses cost 50 cents — plus the penny you’re about to flatten.

At the Philadelphia Zoo, some elongated pennies are imprinted with lions and monkeys. You might pick up a Rocky penny at Independence Visitors Center. Here’s a map of where else you can turn one-cent coins into keepsakes:

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What’s the history behind these things?

These tokens have a long history. Experts think elongated coins were first made in 1892 at the Chicago World’s Fair. At the time, there were four different designs commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America.

Since then, the popularity of the elongated coins has fluctuated. They were pretty popular nationwide until 1916, then not so popular until 1932. After 1932, sales increased pretty steadily. Today, they’re supposedly being produced “at such a rapid rate that it is nearly impossible for a collector to keep up with them all.”

Yep, this is kind of illegal (but no one cares)

U.S. Codes Title 18, Chapter 17, Section 331 “prohibits the mutilation, diminution and falsification of United States coinage.” But, fun fact: some Treasury Department officials have unofficially taken the stance that the statute doesn’t apply if you didn’t mutilate the coin with fraudulent intent. Hence, companies like The Penny Men exist.

Want to know more?

There’s apparently a whole community of penny-press enthusiasts out there. (Disney theme parks have lots of these machines, so that’s a thing people collect.) Penny Collector has a good list of tips if you’re looking for a new hobby, with notes on how to keep your token clean and answers to questions like whether you can press those Canadian pennies that sometimes pop up in your change.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...