D.c. Couple Shares A Passion For Pennies (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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A D.C. Couple Shares A Passion For Pennies

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
While we're talking about math, do you remember the first kind of math you ever learned? For me, way back when, I'm pretty sure it was learning to recognize and count coins. Then we moved on to adding them and subtracting them, all those quarters and dimes and nickels and pennies. And it's that last type of currency, those humble pennies, that we're going to focus on now but not just any pennies -- squished pennies.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:27
For years Pete Morelewicz and his wife Christine Henry had a squished penny museum in their D.C. home. It attracted thousands of visitors. The museum is closed now, but Pete and Christine still collect and squish pennies. And, as Jessica Gould tells us, the act of transforming copper has transformed the couple.

MS. JESSICA GOULD

00:00:45
Here's the thing about squished pennies. You never forget your first. Mine is at the home of Pete Morelewicz and Christine Henry. Pete guides me through the process.

MR. PETE MORELEWICZ

00:00:56
Put the penny in, and, with your right hand, pull the crank back towards you.

GOULD

00:01:00
It's heavy. Ta-da. It's a little bit like giving birth.

GOULD

00:01:10
It's so beautiful.

GOULD

00:01:12
Actually, Christine says the squished penny was born at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.

MS. CHRISTINE HENRY

00:01:19
For a long time it was just at events like that, like state fairs and world's fairs and those kind of like big gatherings of people.

GOULD

00:01:26
Then Pete says the practice of imprinting pennies went out of favor during World War II, probably because metal was too precious. It reemerged as a hobby in the 1960s.

MORELEWICZ

00:01:36
And these guys would be in their basement, and they would hand make machines. And they would make limited numbers of pennies, mainly to trade to each other.

GOULD

00:01:43
He says coin operated machines started popping up at tourist attractions in the 1980s. Christine was a college student on a trip to New York City when she squished her first penny with an image of Central Park.

HENRY

00:01:56
And this guy was like, hey, if you give me 75 cents, I'll squish this penny for you. And, you know, I was like, oh, my God, this is the coolest thing ever, right? And just the idea that he was taking something that a lot of people kind of ignore, they throw away -- but, like, he was taking it, and he was making it into a piece of art.

GOULD

00:02:11
Christine's passion for pennies was contagious, and it didn't take long for Pete to try. He says it was love at first squish.

MORELEWICZ

00:02:20
I still remember the sunlight, what it was like that evening, and, yeah, it's like I never forgot that first one.

GOULD

00:02:25
Soon, the couple found themselves driving across country on a hunt for compressed coins.

MORELEWICZ

00:02:32
Christine has a highly tuned copper radar. So if we pull into a town and we suspect there might be squished pennies there, I think Christine's ears prick up and she just kind of sniffs the air and is like, okay, we got to go that way. They're going to have squished pennies at that museum.

GOULD

00:02:46
They visited some of America's most famous landmarks.

MORELEWICZ

00:02:49
But we're really just there for the penny, so we never see the attraction.

HENRY

00:02:53
That's not fair, though. It's not only for the pennies, but it's just mostly for the pennies. I saw the Grand Canyon after we squished.

GOULD

00:03:02
And they did make some amazing discoveries.

MORELEWICZ

00:03:04
So we have a penny that says "Good luck from Buzzy, the master lover" in Indianapolis.

GOULD

00:03:10
Over the years, they amassed almost 10,000 squished coins. Pete and Christine joked that they were going to put their pennies on the mantel and invite people to come see them.

MORELEWICZ

00:03:20
And then it actually happened. We started inviting the public, and, lo and behold, people actually showed up.

GOULD

00:03:26
For just over a decade, they operated the Squished Penny Museum out of their house in LeDroit Park.

MORELEWICZ

00:03:33
There was 250 pennies on display in different categories: animals, cultural sites. We'd do natural sites, zoos, aquariums, parks. Then we had some rotating exhibits. One was on World's Fairs, and then we had one on presidents. And then the best part was the squished penny machine where people could make their own pennies.

GOULD

00:03:52
Of course, the die-hard collectors came, but so did tourists and students.

MORELEWICZ

00:03:57
And there's always the one kid who's like, "I want to see the Squished Penny Museum." So there had to be a chaperone who would traipse over to LeDroit Park, come to our house and -- you know, the kid was elated, but I think the chaperone was like, "Wow, this is really weird."

GOULD

00:04:11
After a while, though, it became hard for Pete and Christine to keep up with the popularity of the museum.

HENRY

00:04:16
People just started, you know, kind of showing up on a Sunday morning. Like, hey, we heard there's a museum here.

MORELEWICZ

00:04:22
And, hey, we're still in our pajamas.

HENRY

00:04:24
Yeah.

GOULD

00:04:25
So they decided to close it, but pennies still play a big role in their lives. After all, Pete proposed with a squished penny.

MORELEWICZ

00:04:32
I had a custom squished penny made for Christine that said, "Will you marry me?"

HENRY

00:04:37
I always joke about how, you know, most girls get a diamond ring, but I got a squished penny with a diamond ring on it. So it was even better.

GOULD

00:04:44
And Christine says the flat pennies have made her a more well-rounded person.

HENRY

00:04:49
I think it's made me more adventurous.

GOULD

00:04:51
Meanwhile, Pete says the hobby transformed him in a different way.

MORELEWICZ

00:04:55
So, in the basement one day, I was making some pennies and got my hand caught in the machine, and I lost a couple fingers, one and a half.

GOULD

00:05:03
But he says he wouldn't trade any of his pennies or the experiences he's had collecting them with Christine.

MORELEWICZ

00:05:09
Looking at each penny, it's a memory of time that we spent together.

GOULD

00:05:12
He says squishing on your own is fun. Squishing with someone love is much better.

GOULD

00:05:20
That's so fun.

GOULD

00:05:23
I'm Jessica Gould.

SHEIR

00:05:26
So here's a question for you. Which came first, the squished penny, crackerjacks or the Ferris wheel? To find out, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
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