As if there hasn't been enough sad news at work lately, today I learned about a particularly tragic development afflicting the Chicago History Museum next week: we are going to lose our souvenir penny press. Evidently, the company that supplies the press engages in a 50/50 profit-sharing scheme with the museum, and with our attendance waning in the down economy, it is no longer profitable to have a machine located here. It just so happens, that I love pressed pennies (or elongated pennies, which is the technical term).
A few of the pressed pennies I've made around town, including the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which also lost its penny press last year, due to poor attendance figures.
As I have gotten older, kitschy souvenirs like stuffed animals, t-shirts, and assorted bric-a-brac appeal to me less and less. They do nothing but take up space and collect dust. Not to mention that they're usually overpriced to begin with. Pressed pennies, however, are a different story. They are small, evocative of a specific location, and at 51 cents, the price is right. I get a special thrill whenever I find a pressed penny machine somewhere I'm visiting. I'm not a sufficiently hardcore enough collector to get every available design wherever I find a press; instead, I usually opt only for the designs that appeal specifically to me. I try to avoid dies that have only text, or that have generic images that aren't specifically related to the place they came from.
Some of my elongated pennies from around the U.S.
I had been putting off getting any elongated pennies here at the History Museum, because I felt a little sheepish getting a souvenir item from my place of employment, particularly because the press is located in a very public hallway. But today, upon learning that my window was quickly closing, I got change from a five dollar bill and got cranking. Even though I really only liked one of the four available designs, I got all of them anyway, since I'd never have another chance if I changed my mind. It was approximately as embarrassing as I feared it would be, especially when one of the security guards gave me a hard time about all the noise I was making, but I would not be deterred.
My newly minted CHM pennies. The hot dog design (top) is my favorite by far.
In my opinion, the loss of our penny press is especially sad, given the historical connection between Chicago and elongated pennies. You see, the first penny press machines were created for the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. It almost seems like it should be our duty to carry on the same tradition. Plus, the existence of Chicago History Museum-branded pennies gives us some legitimacy as a tourist destination. Even though we are much smaller, it put us into the same league as museum powerhouses like the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. Now we belong to the same ignominious category as the perennially struggling Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. It's yet another small indignity served up by the Great Recession in my fair city. I wonder how many more there will be before the economy recovers...