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Joseph Wharton: The Man Behind the 'Nickel'
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
May 06, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Today we take nickels pretty much for granted. In the constant changing of the reverse designs on our nation’s quarters, nickels have been able to make something of a mark as well, in the form of the Lewis and Clark nickels, with their fresh, new designs. But since nickels are so common, and are such a workhorse coin, we don’t often think about how they started out.

Curiously, the five-cent coins we now use, composed of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, represent a relatively new alloy, and the driving force behind them was a single person, Joseph Wharton.

The first five-cent coin of the United States was the silver half dime, the smallest of the original silver coin denominations. While the half dime ended up co-existing with the nickel for several years, by the time the Shield nickel design was unveiled, people had been hoarding silver and gold coins for five long years of the very bloody Civil War.

Wharton was no fool when it came to seeing an opportunity for the use of something he produced and refined. Nickel had been discovered not all that many years before Wharton’s mines (in the well named town of Nickel Mines, Pa.) got around to producing it on a multi-ton scale. Brought up in a well-to-do Quaker family, Wharton had a solid education in science, good training as an accountant, and several years of experience working in the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Co., close to Bethlehem, Pa., by the time he got out of the zinc business and into nickel. There were certainly other areas besides coinage in which he pursued the use of nickel, but five-cent coins did hold a certain allure.

Let’s use the Shield nickels as an example. Every one of these new coins weighed in at five grams, of which 25 percent was nickel. That’s 1.25 grams per coin. At a quick glance, that doesn’t seem like too much. But that first year of issue, in which 14,742,500 of the new coins were made, meant Wharton was able to move just a bit over 2 tons of his metal. That’s not bad for the first year of a government contract with no one bidding against you.

Today, the 1866 Shield nickel begins something of a two-year type run. The rays separating the stars on the reverse were removed the next year, meaning some 1867 nickels are called Type 1, meaning with rays, while others are Type 2, without rays. Collectors who want one today can pretty much find them in any grade, with mint-state specimens starting out at a bit less than $300. Obviously, circulated examples will cost less. In general, the 1867 costs less than the 1866.

As mentioned, nickel was not the first industrial concern for Wharton. He had managed to do very well selling zinc—a component of the brass used in numerous military applications—prior to his investment in nickel mines and refineries. But nickel certainly got Wharton the attention of several people in Washington and Philadelphia, including those in the Mint who were in charge of securing metal supplies for the nation’s coins.

Not many collectors bother to go through the math involved in producing an entire run of any coin, but if we add all the totals for Shield nickel production, from 1866 to 1883, we get the rather large number: 128,040,239. Certainly, today’s mintages dwarf that, but this remains a huge figure for the time.

Taking that number, remembering there is 1.25 grams of nickel in each coin, and turning this into tons gives us: 176.3 tons, give or take a pound. Without a doubt, that’s a lot of metal. And all of it was supplied by Wharton’s mines and refineries.

The Shield nickel series has a lot to offer in this short span of years. Beyond the two years in which there are rays on the reverse, the series saw five years with totals of greater than 10 million coins, and an additional eight years where the total rose into seven figures. There are some big rarities at the tail end of the series as well. Most notable are the 1877 and 1878, two years in which only proofs were produced.

With this many very common years of Shield nickel production in a 23-year series, starting a Shield nickel collection today is still pretty easy. Heavily circulated pieces are inexpensive enough that some of them may reside in dealer bargain bins, but most of us want to collect in better grades than the low end of things.

In that case, moving up to Very Fine-20 or even Extremely Fine-40 gets us into price ranges that are close to $100 per coin, without going over. Scratching the surface of mint state gets a person into the low hundreds range. Obviously, the amount you are willing to spend per coin dictates the collection you will build.

In addition, any collector who wants to assemble a set of Shield nickels will usually pause when he or she comes to these two years of proof-only coins. After all, these are the two rarest years in the series, they are never cheap, and they don’t come up for sale too often.

But if you are the type who gets serious about a specific coin, these two proofs could actually be considered undervalued. There is an estimate of 900 for the total for 1877, and 2,350 for 1878. Compared to the millions, or tens of millions, of nickels produced in those common years, these two different proof dates have to be considered extremely rare. But the cost for one is really only a few thousand dollars.

This may be much more than many of us spend on any one particular coin, but it’s something of an indicator of just how few people collect these nickels as a series that the price is not much, much higher. Honestly, what would the cost of a Morgan dollar be given similar mintage figures? Much more than a few thousand dollars, indeed.

But whether or not we ignore these two rare dates, this first series of nickels can be fun to collect. The common dates are almost always available, and even the lower mintage years are not too difficult to find, given some time and patience.

In 1883, the design for the nickel was changed to what most of us now call the Liberty Head nickel. Importantly for Wharton, who would not pass away until January 1909, the composition of the nickel did not change when the design did. Thus, he was still in the business of selling to the government and getting his nickel metal on the market.

At the same time the design of the nickel was changing, Wharton was taking on a couple of his notable and lasting philanthropic ventures. In 1881 he endowed the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania, giving the impressive sum of $100,000. Even today, the Wharton School’s website proclaims it the “world’s first collegiate business school.”

Further, in 1883, he became president of the board of Swarthmore College, which he and several others had helped found in 1869. Industrialists are often considered tough, ruthless types who would sell their own mother when it came to making more money, and who use philanthropy only to clear their sullied names and make a better image for themselves. For Wharton though, whatever his personality, it seems that giving back was part of what he did his entire life. Maybe this had to do with his Quaker upbringing.

While Wharton’s company continued to provide nickel for U.S. coinage, and for nickel magnets, reality ended up intruding on his business, meaning his mines eventually played out enough that he needed to import the metal, then sell it. By the time the Liberty Head nickels were a common fixture in America, a significant portion of the nickel that was in them came from our Northern neighbor. Wharton was buying nickel from Sudbury, Ontario.

Purchasing nickel didn’t automatically put an end to its use in our five-cent coins, or to Wharton’s business. Indeed, the composition is the same in 2013 as it was back then. But it did force a change in Wharton’s involvement. Anything he had that was close to a monopoly on nickel was now gone, but his business interests were such that he and several others combined to form the International Nickel Co., generally known as Inco.

Wharton basically sold off his older company to have what he needed to claim a share and stake in this new one, and was able to land as a board member on Inco. As one might imagine, he had other irons in the fire as well, which meant that whether his fortunes in nickel rose or fell, he was not going to be in too much fiscal trouble.

Liberty Head nickels are known for being a series with numerous common dates, and for being the series with one of the most famous rarities ever (the 1913, that is). If we were to compute the amount of nickel used in all the five-cent pieces in this series, we’d probably be astonished by the total. Wharton would probably just smile.

As mentioned, Wharton passed away in 1909. He was 82 years old by then, and had made fortunes in zinc and nickel, as well as in municipal water and in steel. While the collecting community remembers his involvement in seeing nickel used in the coins we now know as nickels, he is also remembered for his massive involvement in the company now called Bethlehem Steel.

By 1909, Wharton and the rest of the nation had seen over 20 years of Liberty Head nickels pour out of the Philadelphia Mint. Collectors recognize that in this entire series, the only difficult dates to find (excluding the 1913) are the 1885 and 1886, and the 1912-S. None of these three have mintages that would truly qualify them as rarities. Yet they remain the key coins within this series. Other than these three dates, Liberty Head nickels remain very collectible today, and quite affordable, no matter your collecting budget.

When serious collectors consider the people behind the coins, we often know a good deal about the Mint artists and engravers, and even about the Mint director from various periods of our nation’s history. But there are fewer who know much about the men who got the raw material to the Mint, often because there was a company and not an individual responsible for that job. In the case of nickel, though, and of the five-cent pieces made from it, Wharton is one key player who helped change U.S. coinage.

Whether we collect Shield and Liberty Head nickels, or just spend the modern nickels we receive in change, it’s intriguing to know how much one man did to make this everyday coin a part of our modern life.


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