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Pete Morelewicz and his wife Christine Henry have a passion for pennies. Squished pennies. Christine says she started squishing back in college, on a trip New York City.
"I was in Central Park and there was this guy with a portable machine," she says. "I was like, 'Oh my God, this is the coolest thing ever, right?!' Just the idea that he was taking something that people ignore, but he was taking it and making it into a piece of art. I just thought that was the coolest thing."
Christine's passion for pennies was contagious, and it didn't take long for her then-boyfriend Pete to try. He says it was love at first squish.
"I still remember the sunlight, what it was like that evening, I never forgot that first one," he says.
Soon the couple found themselves driving across country, on a hunt for compressed coins. "Christine has a highly tuned copper radar," Pete says. "So if we pull into a town and we suspect there might be squished pennies there, she kind of sniffs the air and says, 'We gotta go that way, they're going to have squished pennies at that museum.'"
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. "And then it actually happened," Pete says. "We started inviting the public and lo and behold people actually showed up."
For just over a decade, they operated The Squished Penny Museum out of their LeDroit Park home. They displayed about 250 pennies at a time, divided into categories such as animals, sayings, cultural sites and natural landmarks. Then there were rotating exhibits, on World's Fairs, for example, in tribute to the birthplace of the first squished penny -- the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The couple even had their own hand-crank, penny-squishing machine, where visitors could make pennies of their own. "That was the best part," Christine says.
Of course, the diehard collectors came. But so did tourists and students.
"There's always the one kid who was like, 'I want to see the Squished Penny Museum.' So there would have to be a chaperone who would traipse over to LeDroit park. The kid was elated. And the chaperone would be like, 'Wow. This is really weird.' But people got to see a different side of D.C. And that was kind of nice," says Pete.
After a while, though, it became hard for Pete and Christine to keep up with the popularity of the museum. "People just started showing up on a Sunday morning. And they'd say, 'Hey. We heard there was a museum here.' And we'd say, 'Hey. We're still in our pajamas,'" Christine says.
So they decided to close it. But pennies still play a big role in their lives. After all, Pete proposed with a squished penny.
"I always joke about how most girls get a diamond ring. But I got a squished penny with a diamond ring on it," says Christine.
Meanwhile, Christine says the flat pennies have made her a more well-rounded person. "It's made me more adventurous," she says.
Pete, on the other hand, says the hobby transformed him in a different way. "I was making a penny and I got my hand caught in the machine. And I lost a couple fingers. Well, one and a half," he says.
But he says he wouldn't trade any of his pennies, or the experiences he's had collecting them with Christine. "Looking at each penny, it's a memory of the time we spent together," he says. "Squishing on your own is fun. Squishing with someone is better."
What came first: The squished penny, the ferris wheel, or crackerjacks?
Answer: They all debuted at the same time! At the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.
[Music: "Pennies From Heaven" by Sarah Vaughan from 16 Great Songs]