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July 6, 2007

'Flat-Line Time for the Squished Penny Museum'


Why is it that all too often I first find out about interesting people by reading their obituaries?

Alas, a similar thing has just occurred with the late, lamented Squished Penny Museum (above, with co-founders Pete Morelewicz and Christine Henry in their creation) in Washington, D.C.

I only heard about it when I read the sad story of its demise in a July 2, 2007 Washington Post column by John Kelly; the obit follows.

    Flat-Line Time for the Squished Penny Museum

    As I toured Washington's Squished Penny Museum — indeed, as I took the very last tour of the museum — I couldn't help wondering if perhaps the reason the museum has closed its doors is that everyone who could possibly want to see the world's largest public collection of copper coins flattened into wafer-thin souvenirs has already seen it.

    "Oh, no," said Christine Henry, the museum's co-founder. The public remains as interested as ever in squished pennies, she insisted. Christine and her husband, Pete Morelewicz, would just like their weekends back.

    For the museum, you see, is — or, rather, was — in the front hallway of the couple's LeDroit Park home. People interested in touring the museum — in seeing the squished pennies carefully encapsulated in plastic cases and mounted on wooden boards; in learning about the hobby's history; in squishing a few pennies of their own — simply called them up and made an appointment. But the address had leaked out over the 11 years Pete and Christine had run the museum, and all too frequently patrons would simply show up.

    Sometimes Christine would be in her pajamas.

    So the museum was closing its doors, and there I was, the last outsider to get inside.

    I learned that the squished penny made its first appearance in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

    I saw the first penny Christine squished, as a college student visiting New York 18 years ago. I saw pennies the couple squished on visits to back-road tourist traps and interstate rest stops across the country, from Cadiz, Ky., "Home of the Ham Festival," to Graceland, home of Elvis.

    I saw squished penny oddities: "Never play leapfrog with a unicorn," read one. "Good luck from Buzzy the Master Lover, Indianapolis," read another.

    I experienced the charm of the museum and felt a little sad — as Pete and Christine do — that it has closed.

    "We started to get so many visitors that we were overwhelmed," said Pete, 34, art director of the Washington City Paper. "We didn't have enough time to accommodate everyone who wanted to visit us. And that was really tough for them as well as for us, because we wanted to make people happy."

    Some people seemed not to quite grasp the homespun nature of the museum. They would call and ask if there was tour bus parking or a cafe.

    Even without tour bus parking or a cafe, more than 2,000 people visited the museum.

    "No matter what background people came from, they always seemed to leave fans," Pete said.

    That's because the museum was a slice of home, said Christine, 36, who works for the federal government and makes grants to museums — although not, it should be pointed out, her own. After a day spent trudging through cavernous galleries, the intimate setting — shoes in the vestibule, cats wandering around — was soothing.

    The couple has more than 6,000 squished pennies, although only 250 were ever on display at one time.

    "That's about all anyone can see before their eyes start glazing over," said Pete. (You can see some at their Web site, www.squished.com)

    They mounted the occasional specialty exhibition, such as the well-received "Oval Officers: Profiles in Copper," a display of 72 presidential pennies.

    Christine said even with 6,000 squished pennies, they are not among the hobby's most rabid fans. "A lot of them think we're not serious enough," she said. These might be those who consider the term "squished pennies" vulgar, preferring "elongated coins."

    (Few could question Pete's devotion. In April, he lost most of his left pinkie in an incident involving an electric squisher they keep in the basement.) With the museum closed, Pete and Christine can return to what they like the most: searching the kitsch-scape for more squished pennies. "That's why we got into it in the first place," said Pete. "We call it tuning our copper radar."


To take a video tour of the Squished Penny Museum, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

July 6, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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