Is Penny Smashing A Federal Crime?

As kids, nothing was more exciting than spotting a penny-smashing machine. These were the perfect souvenirs on road trips and other adventures.

At some point, we learned that defacing money is a serious offense, punishable with a fine and jail time. So, were we, or are you committing a federal crime using a penny-smashing machine?

Today, we’ll share all you need to know to stay on the right side of the law.

Let’s dive in!

What Is a Penny Smashing Machine?

A penny-smashing machine, often called a penny press, is a device that turns a standard penny into a keepsake item. You’ll typically find them at tourist hotspots like amusement parks and other high-traffic areas.

As their name indicates, these devices will smash the penny and replace the image with the name, logo, or something unique to the location. It’s a tangible way for the individual to remember an experience.

Tourists love these devices as they offer affordable and compact souvenirs. Smashed pennies allow travelers to avoid purchasing bulky and expensive items from the gift shop. In addition, it’s fun to watch the entire process unfold before your eyes.

An old looking penny smashing machine with a hand crank.
Source: Reddit

We mentioned earlier that defacing or altering money is illegal. However, penny-smashing machines are perfectly legal. This is because there must be an intent to defraud when using the money.

For example, it is defacing or altering a $5 bill to look like $100 instead. If caught, you would likely end up in serious trouble. The United States Secret Service investigates these cases and takes them very seriously.

However, it’s important to note that we’re not lawyers and never have claimed to be. If you’re worried about staying on the right side of the law, seek counsel from a professional lawyer. 

A close up of the top of a pressed penny machine showing the different design choices and stating that it is legal to smash pennies and what code.

How Do Penny Smashing Machines Work?

Penny-smashing machines use force to flatten and emboss coins. The user inserts a penny and whatever fee the machine charges and watches the magic happen.

Some machines require a more hands-on approach. The user turns a crank, which typically moves an extensive network of gears and chains to harness enough force to flatten the penny.

Additionally, some modern machines generate force through electronics or hydraulics. All the user has to do is insert their money, press a button, and watch the process unfold. When finished, they retrieve the penny from the collection tray.

Are Pressed Pennies Worth Anything?

When it comes to the value of pressed pennies, like many other things, its value is in the eye of the beholder. Generally, these souvenirs aren’t worth anything aside from their sentimental value. They can be a fun way to remember the priceless memories you created on a trip or other fun event.

However, some people are hardcore collectors and will pay a pretty penny for rare versions. Those that are worth the most are the ones in limited quantities or that are no longer available.

We found several listings for complete sets of eight and 12 from places like Walt Disney World, going for $23 to $60.

So, while they may have some value, they’re typically not great investments. They’ll mostly be valuable to the individual who had them made. Again, it’s not necessarily the metal or the design that’s valuable, but the memories and experiences the coin represents.

A picture of a little booklet called The Penny Passport with the United State emblem on it.

How to use a Penny Smashing Machine

Using a penny smashing machine is relatively simple. Generally, they’ll have detailed instructions printed on them to help walk you through the process. If not, here are the steps to follow.

Locate the Penny Smashing Machine

The hardest part of the process is locating a penny smashing machine. However, we found an online map documenting over 3,000 of these devices.

Punch your ZIP code into this resource and watch as it shows you all the machines within a specific distance. We found many near us that we didn’t even know existed.

As expected, most of the ones near us are at touristy spots. However, we searched a few popular cities around the country and noticed they’re popular at places with historical significance. State parks, zoos, and theme parks are some of the most popular sites you’ll find them.

If you like quirky souvenirs, you’ll probably like 5 of the Most Bizarre Tourist Attractions in the USA.

Select Your Design

The hardest decision to make during this process is selecting a design. Most locations offer a variety of designs to choose from, and it’s up to you to decide.

Since this is about you, pick the one that describes how you want to remember the experience.

We’ve learned that the placement of the selector arrow is critical to getting the perfect smashed penny. Most people place it directly on the arrow, but the key is to do it just before it. This little extra space perfectly centers the design and ensures a crisp and clear finished product.

Three smashed pennies from the Grand Canyon, Route 66, and Big Spring in Michigan.

Insert Money

All of these machines require you to provide a penny. In addition to the penny, you’ll need to include two to four quarters, which is the fee the owner charges to maintain and profit from the machine.

Insert your money into the coin slots and push the paddle forward to take it.

Start the Machine

The next step is to start the machine. If it’s an electronic press, the process will begin when you press the button to select a design. However, if it’s a manual cranking machine, you’ll be the one to generate the power.

Grab ahold of the handle and start cranking. It typically takes less than a minute to complete the entire process. When finished, the machine will kick out the penny and toss it into a collection tray.

Watch the Magic

Once you start the machine, watching the entire process unfold before your eyes is fun. Watching the spinning gears work in partnership with each other is mesmerizing.

No matter how big or small, each of these whirling pieces has an important job. If a single one fails to do its job, you’re likely not getting that smashed penny.

An open penny passport book that's almost full of smashed pennies from around the United States.

Should You Use a Penny Smashing Machine?

Because of the way we travel, we love penny smashing machines. We see and experience a lot of new places during our adventures. If we purchased a souvenir at every single one, we’d run out of storage space and be broke. However, smashed pennies are cheap and take up very little space. It’s the perfect combination for what we need in a souvenir!

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