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Nickel Set Tells the Story
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
December 05, 2012

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The “nickel” has been around nearly 150 years, dating back to President Andrew Johnson’s administration. But in all that time, only a handful of designs have appeared. An inexpensive nickel type set tells the story.

On April 11,1865, the 39th Congress passed an act authorizing the first nickel five-cent piece, actually composed of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. The president signed it into law on May 19, 1865.

Despite a large initial mintage, it took a while for nickels to circulate in many parts of the country. In Maine, the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier reported in January 1866, “The nickel five-cent coins can now be had.”

According to the Aug. 6, 1867, issue of the New York Times, a plant in Camden, N.J., supplied nearly all the nickel used by the U.S. Mint. Joseph Wharton had established the nickel works and was the main advocate of nickel coinage.

Mint engraver James B. Longacre designed the new coin. The obverse had a shield resembling the one on the two-cent piece. The reverse had a large “5” within a circle of stars and rays.

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2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Nickels

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The design was unpopular from the beginning. The August 1866 issue of the American Journal of Numismatics said, “The ugliest of all known coins, the new five-cent piece, is out, as oysters are served in some places ‘in every style.’” The September issue gave a reader’s unflattering description of the Shield nickel:

“On the obverse of this remarkable coin, the first thing that attracts attention is a very elaborate and highly ornamented gridiron, the clumsy handle of which appears to be broken from the body, thus rendering this culinary utensil almost useless.

“The upper part and sides of this gridiron are hung with leaves of some sort, strongly reminding one of the savory branches of herbs displayed in a market-house in autumn, or of a green-grocer’s sign in huckleberry time.

“Perhaps the same accident that severed the handle of the gridiron also fractured the lower part, for we notice that it is there skewered by two arrows, pointing in opposite directions.

“The motto ‘In God We Trust’ is very opportune, for the inventor of this coin may rest assured that the devil will never forgive him for such an abortion.

“The reverse of this thing is less objectionable, for the inventor appears to have almost exhausted his remarkable skill on the obverse. However, he has made a ‘bold push’ and brought forth something. Here we have a circle of stars intersected by 13 bars of three scratches each, around the top of which are the words ‘United States of America’ in very delicate letters.

“The make-up of this coin is completed by the insertion in the field of a big, loud ‘5,’ with ‘Cents’ in the exergue, which must be pronounced in the peculiar oyster saloon style thus: ‘Five Cents!’”

Even Joseph Wharton hated the Shield nickel’s design. In 1877 he wrote:

“The diameter of this coin being too small for its weight, it has an awkward and lumpy appearance, and is entirely devoid of resonance.

“The design of its face strongly suggests the old-fashioned pictures of a tombstone surmounted by a cross and overhung by weeping willows, which suggestion is corroborated by the religious motto. It is a curiously ugly device.

“This coin should be replaced by one of the same weight and composition, but of larger diameter and similar in device to the three-cent coin.”

The Philadelphia Mint struck more than 14.7 million nickels in 1866. By August, New York City reportedly had an “abundance” of nickels.

The Mint modified the Shield nickel’s reverse during 1867 because of striking problems. The Feb. 17, 1867, issue of the New York Times said the revised nickel “has not the rays” on the reverse. Nickel production had fallen sharply by 1870. “The demand for this small coinage from various causes has largely declined,” the Mint director wrote.

Only proofs were struck in 1877 and 1878. Production of nickels for circulation was negligible from 1879 through 1881. But in December 1882 the Treasury secretary wrote in his annual report that there was “large demand for nickel five-cents.”

The Mint struck more than 11.4 million nickels in 1882. In 1883 production fell to around 1.4 million. A Fine-12 example of either date sells for about $30.

In early 1883 the Shield nickel gave way to the Liberty Head nickel designed by Mint engraver Charles Barber. The Chester Times explained:

“The Treasury Department was not satisfied with the five-cent piece now in circulation, and at the session of Congress last year, authority was given for the coining of a new piece. Colonel Snowden of the Philadelphia Mint prepared the piece.

“The old piece was near the three-cent piece in size. The size of the new piece is between that of the three-cent piece and of the 20-cent piece. The new coin is of the same weight as the old and of the same alloy, the proportions being 25 nickel and 75 of copper. The coining of the old piece is to be stopped as that of the new piece is begun.”

The Feb. 13, 1883, issue of the Daily Nevada State Journal provided additional details: “The San Francisco Bulletin says some dissatisfaction having been expressed concerning the design of the five-cent nickel which has been in circulation for a number of years, Congress about a year ago gave its authority for a new die. The work has been under the direction of A.L. Snowden, superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint.

“Whether it has taken Mr. Snowden and the engraver all this time to perfect the die, we do not know.

“The first of the new coins were dropped from the press on the first of February, on which day over 100,000 were made. Of course, none of these coins have yet reached San Francisco, but representations of them have appeared in the New York Sun.

“The piece is slightly larger than the old coin, but thinner, the weight and composition being unchanged. It is composed of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel.

“It is very near the size of the half eagle, and on one side is very much of the same appearance. “On the center of the other side is a very large ‘V,’ surrounded with a wreath, with the words ‘United States of America’ and ‘E Pluribus Unum’ encircling the wreath, just inside the milling.

“The new coin will hardly be considered an improvement. It is open to the objection of representing the half eagle on one side. The large ‘V’ suggests nothing so much as the signs of lager beer saloons, and the legend of ‘5 Cents a Glass’ would make the suggestion complete.

“Congress made its first great mistake in the denomination of coin in dropping the silver half dime from the currency system. But if we are never to have the coin restored, we would suggest the coinage of the new nickel be authorized at San Francisco as well as Philadelphia.” Another description of the Liberty Head nickel appeared in the Jan. 19, 1883, issue of the Newark, Ohio Daily Advocate:

“The Secretary of the Treasury has authorized the coinage of a five-cent nickel piece of a new design, which is considered as being more in compliance with the law as regards weight and inscriptions than the present five-cent nickel piece.

“The new coin measures 21 millimeters, which is one millimeter more than the present coin, and is a little larger and thinner than the coin now in circulation.

“On the face of the new coin is a female head surmounted with a fillet, upon which is inscribed the word ‘Liberty,’ the whole being ornamented by 13 stars. The reverse side contains a wreath surrounding a Roman numeral representing the denomination of the coin.”

According to a headline in the March 3, 1883, issue of the Daily Nevada State Journal, the Liberty Head nickel was “A Key to the Metric System.” The article explained:

“It may not be generally known that we have in the new nickel five-cent piece of our coinage a key to the tables of linear measures and weights.

“The diameter of this coin is two centimeters and its weight is five grams. Five of them placed in a row will, of course, give the length of the decimeter, and two of them will weight a decagram.

“As the kilometer is a cubic meter, the key to the measures of length is also the key to the measures of capacity. Any person, therefore, who is fortunate enough to own a five-cent nickel may carry in his pocket the entire metric system of weights and measures.”

The Liberty Head nickel’s resemblance to the gold $5 piece was its greatest pitfall. “The New Nickel: Coin that is Not All It Seems to Be,” said the headline in the April 25, 1883, issue of the Reno Evening Gazette. The story of what was happening in Reno was the same as in many other cities:

“The new nickel five-cent piece has arrived at Reno. When neatly plated, it looks so much like a $5 piece that cunning immigrants from the East have already dropped on the new dodge and palmed the deceptive pieces off upon bar-keepers and others along the road.…

“The new five-cent nickel, gilded with the same alloy used in the making of gold coin, may be easily passed as $5 among persons not accustomed to handling metallic money. With the exception that the edge is not milled, when lying with the head up it can scarcely be distinguished from the $5 coin.”

The U.S. Treasurer considered “Racketeer” nickels a novelty. The Mint director took them even less seriously. The Feb. 14, 1883, issue of the Boston Daily Globe reported:

“The new nickel five-cent piece is the subject of much discussion in the Treasury Department. Treasurer Gilfillan carries in his vest pocket one of these coins plated with gold, and its resemblance on one side to the $5 piece is quite striking.

If gold coins had been in general circulation, there would have been no apprehension that a nickel would be passed as a $5 gold piece, the newspaper claimed. The large “V” on the reverse would have been “an effectual barrier.”

However, because paper money was used almost exclusively for larger transactions, many Treasury people thought the public’s unfamiliarity with the half eagle made them more likely to accept “Racketeer” nickels as $5 gold pieces.

The Mint director ridiculed the idea of a successful counterfeit gold piece being made from a five-cent nickel and said there was “no plan to suspend the coinage of the new piece.”

Nevertheless, the reverse design was quickly revised. “Secretary Folger has ordered the word ‘Cents’ be stamped onto the new nickel five-cent pieces,” said the Marshall, Mich. Daily Chronicle.

The Feb. 5, 1885, issue of the Burlington Hawk Eye gave a brief history of the nickel. It blasted both the Shield and Liberty Head designs and the denomination in general:

“The nickel five-cent piece was commenced in 1865 and has proved to be, without exception, the worst sample of coining yet executed by the government. It is still being coined at the various Mints [sic] throughout the country and will continue to be sent forth in circulation until a sensible public demands discontinuance of this coin.…

“Dealers were sharp and gathered in almost the entire issue of 1878, which they were holding for high figures. They will become scarce after a while.

“The new five-cent nickel of 1883, without the words ‘Cents,’ was recalled soon after it was issued, but not before at least 7 million of them were scattered broadcast over the land. A new one followed close after, bearing the word ‘Cents,’ and a like piece has been issued in 1884. “The absence of the word ‘Cents’ has caused much speculation as to what the true value of this coin might be when gilded, so it was gathered in and a new die was made.

“There will not be much premium on them, at least for a long time, for many are outstanding, probably in the hands of dealers who are saving them for a scarce market.”

Despite newspaper reports to the contrary, there was no recall of the original Liberty Head nickels. But hoarding was so widespread that survivors are plentiful. Coin Prices lists an About Uncirculated-50 example at $12.

The revised Liberty Head nickel design remained in production until 1912, when the Denver and San Francisco Mints struck the first branch mint nickels. Several 1913 Liberty Head nickels were struck clandestinely. Their existence was not revealed until several years later.

Eames MacVeigh deserved some credit for the Liberty Head nickel’s replacement, the Buffalo nickel. In 1911, he wrote to his father, Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeigh:

“A little matter that seems to have been overlooked by all of you is the opportunity to beautify the design of the nickel or five-cent piece during your administration, and it seems to me it would be a permanent souvenir of the most attractive sort.”

Sculptor James Earle Fraser was eager to receive the commission. At first he worked on a Lincoln portrait for the nickel. Then inspiration struck. Deciding the nickel should have distinctly American motifs, he switched to Indian Head and bison designs.

The obverse portrait was a composite of several real-life Indians, including Iron Tail and Two Moons. In the History of the Class of 1903, Yale College, published in 1913, Dudley Payne Lewis expressed his class’ gratitude to Chief Iron Tail:

“Mr. James E. Fraser, the sculptor who designed the Indian Head on the new Buffalo nickel, states that in ‘making that portrait, the face of the magnificent old Indian, Chief Iron Tail, was uppermost in my mind.’”

A realistic Indian head was nothing new on a U.S. coin. But the bison on the nickel’s reverse was, which may have been why the New York Times in July 1912 reported that a buffalo would appear on the obverse of the new nickel, not the reverse.

Mint Director George Roberts approved plaster models of the Buffalo nickel in June 1912. The December issue of The Numismatist said:

“According to recent newspaper reports, the new design for a five-cent piece, the work of James Earle Fraser of New York City, has been approved by the Secretary of the Treasury and by the National Arts Committee, and is said now to need only the approval of President Taft to become the official design for the coin of that denomination.”

The Medallic Art Co. made the obverse and reverse hub reductions of the Buffalo nickel designs, charging $100 per side. The Mint began striking Buffalo nickels in early 1913. The first examples were released Feb. 23, 1913, at Fort Wadsworth, N.Y. The occasion was the ground-breaking ceremony for a National Indian Memorial that was never completed.

The sub-treasury vaults reportedly held 4 million Buffalo nickels to insure widespread distribution. However, a design problem soon became apparent.

“The incused field and raised edge are doubtless intended to prevent the con from wearing away,” the British publication Spink’s Numismatic Circular said. “Experienced numismatists may be pardoned, however, in feeling somewhat skeptical of this ‘Yankee notion,’ particulary as the pieces which have found their way into circulation are by no means clear and sharp in their inscriptions or in the details of the type.

“Possibly this may be due to imperfect striking, which would only make matters worse. But the prominent relief in which the figure of the bison, as well as the ground he is supposed to be standing on, no less than the other extreme of the unnecessarily low relief of the chief’s bust, are not conducive to withstand a very great degree of friction.”

Treasury Secretary William G. McAdoo ordered a design revision in May 1913. The result was the Variety 2 Buffalo nickel depicting the bison on a plain instead of a mound. Below it, “Five Cents” was more clearly defined and better protected from wear.

Many people set aside 1913 Buffalo nickels as keepsakes. In F-12, an example of either variety is valued at $15 or less.

Authors loved the Buffalo nickel. In the novel The Green Half-Moon, published in 1915, a Buffalo nickel helped introduce a young couple aboard a ship. A girl tossed a nickel from hand to hand and dropped it. A young man named Warren picked it up:

“‘Great Scott!’ he cried. ‘A Buffalo nickel!’

“‘And I’m so thankful to you for recovering it!’ cried the girl. ‘I only got it this morning from my country.’

“Warren was upon his feet now. He stood before her, hat in hand, a splendid athletic figure, his fine, open face lit up with a smile as he handed to the girl the shining new nickel that Fates had used to good purpose.”

Charles E. Van Loon referred to a Buffalo nickel in his short story about an umpire, “Shylock Semple,” which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. At one point, someone approached Semple and said, “Why, they told me you was so tight that you wouldn’t give a Buffalo nickel to see the Battle of Waterloo fought over again—with the original cast.”

The Buffalo nickel was embedded in American culture, but it wasn’t popular at the Mint. The design was more difficult and costly to strike than the Liberty Head nickel, and the date quickly disappeared in circulation. The design was retired after it reached the minimum statutory life of 25 years. The Treasury Department announced its successor, the Jefferson nickel, on Jan. 25, 1938.

At first the New York Times referred to the new coin as the “Jeffersonian nickel.” An open competition for designs drew 390 entries. Felix Schlag won the $1,000 cash prize.

In May 1938, the reverse design went back to Schlag for a drastic revision. The original, three-quarter view of Monticello gave way to a front view. A stylized tree was eliminated, and the modern lettering was changed to a more traditional type.

According to Schlag, many artists and collectors considered the original Jefferson nickel reverse to be superior to the design that went into production. “I heard later that it was President Roosevelt who wanted a front view of the house,” he wrote.

The design revision delayed the Jefferson nickel’s debut. On July 18, 1938, the Mint said the coin wouldn’t be released until mid-September 1938. Three days later, the Treasury Department approved the new reverse. On Oct. 1, 1938, Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross ordered the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints to begin striking Jefferson nickels.

Because of massive mintages, the first Jefferson nickels would never be rare. Interest in the coins was strong anyway. In July 1939, Cecil B. DeMille gave Barbara Stanwyck a freshly-minted Jefferson nickel for her performances in scenes of Union Pacific. The Wilmington, Del., Sunday Morning Star said Stanwyck was assembling a Jefferson nickel collection.

Today, a Mint State-60 1938-D or 1939 Philadelphia Jefferson nickel sells for only a few dollars. The five-cent piece switched to an alloy of copper, silver and manganese in 1942 to conserve nickel for the war effort. A large mintmark above Monticello’s dome, including a “P” for Philadelphia, distinguished the wartime alloy “nickels.” The former alloy and mint marks returned in 1946.

Beginning in 2004, new reverses commemorated the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. In 2004 there were Indian Peace Medal and keelboat designs. In 2005 the nickel displayed American bison and Pacific coastline reverses.

Monticello made a comeback in 2006, but with crisper, freshened details. The obverse had a new facing portrait, offset to the left. “Liberty” appeared in script.

From so-called suspender buttons to circulating commemoratives, nickels have come a long way. Born during Reconstruction, the five-cent nickel overcame start-up problems and became an important part of the coinage system. The Shield nickel demonstrated the merits of the alloy and denomination. Barber’s Liberty Head gave it an added measure of respectability. Fraser’s Indian Head and buffalo transformed it into a work of art. Felix Schlag eliminated striking problems and brought the nickel into the modern era.

What the future holds for the nickel is difficult to say. But if the past is any indicator of the future, collectors should reserve spaces in their type set for future designs. The best may be yet to come.

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