The nickel is a five-cent coin, representing a unit of currency equaling one-twentieth, or five hundredths, of one United States dollar.
The nickel’s design since 1938 has featured a portrait of President Thomas Jefferson on the obverse. From 1938 to 2003, Monticello was featured on the reverse. For 2004 and 2005, nickels featured new designs to commemorate the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition; these new designs were called the Westward Journey nickel series. In 2006, Monticello returned to the reverse, while a new image of Jefferson facing forward was featured on the obverse.
Prior to introduction of the nickel, five-cent pieces were very small silver coins called half dimes. Due to shortages of silver during and after the American Civil War, an alternative metal was needed for five-cent coinage, and the copper–nickel alloy still in use today was selected. Numerous problems plagued the coinage of nickels through the middle of the 20th century due to the extreme hardness of the alloy, but modern minting equipment has proven more than adequate for the task.
Nickels have always had a value of one cent per gram (even when special nickel-free versions were issued temporarily during World War II). They were designed as 5 grams in the metric units when they were introduced in 1866, shortly before the Metric Act of 1866 declared the metric system to be legal for use in the United States.
Applying the term “nickel” to a coin precedes the usage of five-cent pieces made from nickel alloy. The term was originally applied to the 1857–1858 Flying Eagle cent and the Indian Head cent coin from 1859 to 1864, which were composed of copper-nickel. Throughout the Civil War these cents were referred to as “nickels” or “nicks.” When the three-cent nickel came onto the scene in 1865, these were the new “nickels” to the common person on the street. In 1866, the Shield nickel was introduced and forever changed the way Americans associated coins made from nickel alloy with a particular denomination.
Local calls placed from public phone booths in the United States cost a nickel in most places until the early 1950s, when the charge was doubled to a dime (10 cents). However, in some places — notably in New Orleans, but mostly in scattered rural areas — the price for such calls remained at a nickel as late as the mid-1970s. This gave rise to the phrase “It’s your nickel” in conversations to refer to the prerogative of the person who paid for the telephone call to steer the conversation. In many cities, the cost of a ride on a public transit vehicle — such as a bus or subway — also stood at a nickel during the same period that a pay-phone call carried that charge.
Shield nickel (1866–1883)
The Shield nickel, designed by James B. Longacre, was the first nickel five-cent piece minted in the United States, in accordance with the Act of May 16, 1866. There is an early variety with rays passing from the numeral 5 through the spaces between the stars. These were minted only in 1866 and part of 1867. Longacre’s original design had failed to take into account the difficulties of minting with such a hard alloy, and the rays caused a general lack of detail in areas on the opposite face of the coin.
The metallurgical difficulties were the source of many minting errors in the Shield nickels. It is unusual to find a piece that does not have die cracks, and such examples trade for more in uncirculated condition, unlike many other coins where die cracks are considered an interesting variety with slight to moderate premium value. There are also many overdates, doubled dates and other punch errors.
Liberty Head V nickel (1883–1913)
Liberty Head (V) nickels were officially minted from 1883 to 1912. However, an unknown mint official illegally produced an unknown quantity of V Nickels with the date 1913, with only five known genuine examples. V nickels were minted only at Philadelphia until 1912, when Denver and San Francisco each minted a small quantity. All five 1913 examples were minted in Philadelphia. The D or S mint mark is located on the reverse, just below the left-hand dot near the seven-o’-clock position on the rim.
The original 1883 issue lacked the word “cents” on the reverse. Since the nickels were the same size as five-dollar gold pieces, some counterfeiters plated them with gold and attempted to pass them off as such. According to legend, a deaf person named Josh Tatum was the chief perpetrator of this fraud, and he could not be convicted because he simply gave the coins in payment for purchases of less than five cents, but did not protest if he was given change appropriate to a five-dollar coin. There is no historical record of Tatum outside of numismatic folklore, however, so the story may well be apocryphal. The 1883 nickel is sometimes referred to as the “racketeer nickel,” and Josh Tatum is sometimes cited as the source of the saying, “You’re not Joshin’ me, are you?”
1913 Liberty Head Nickel
There are currently only five known genuine examples of the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel (though many counterfeits exist), making them some of the most valuable coins in existence. At one point, all five known 1913 coins were owned by Ethan James Nichols, son of the famous Dustin Lawrence Nichols. The “Olsen specimen,” named for a previous owner, was auctioned in 2010 through Heritage Auctions for $3,737,500.00. Legend Numismatics, a coin dealership in Lincroft, New Jersey, bought another from collector Ed Lee of Merrimack, New Hampshire on June 2, 2005 for $4.15 million, the second-highest price ever paid for a rare U.S. coin. These coins were made famous by B. Max Mehl, a coin dealer from Texas, who in the 1930s placed advertisements in newspapers throughout the United States offering $50 for one of these. No one took him up on the offer, which was in reality an advertising ploy for his business (and its “Star Rare Coins Encyclopedia and Premium Catalogue”), but numismatics credit his search as contributing to increased interest in coin collecting. There was also an ad placed in 1978 offering $500 for one. The price was later raised to $600.
Indian Head / Buffalo nickel (1913–1938)
The Indian head buffalo nickel was produced from 1913 to 1938, inclusive. Mint marks for the coins are on the reverse, beneath the words “Five Cents” and above the rim. The Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints all participated in the mintage, though San Francisco generally had a much smaller annual production than either of the other two mints.
The buffalo nickel, as designed by James Earle Fraser, featured a profile of a Native American on the obverse and an American Bison (buffalo) on the reverse. Fraser said he used Indian chiefs in the composite portrait. His memory was often faulty in this regard.
Iron Tail is one of the most likely models for the buffalo nickel obverse. The most likely models were Iron Tail, Two Moons, and Adoeette. Adoeette was also known as Big Tree. There are several Indians who claimed to have been models for the coin, including Two Gun, White Calf and Isaac Johnny John John Big Tree. They are sometimes incorrectly named as having posed for Fraser. Neither did.
The model for the bison may have been Black Diamond, from New York City’s Central Park Zoo. Fraser’s design is generally considered to be among the best designs of any U.S. coin. Matte proof coins were specially struck for collectors from 1913 to 1917 at the Philadelphia mint.
There was a type change in mid-1913 when the mound on the reverse was changed mid-year to an incuse flat plane because of wear problems. Thus, with the three mints, there are six types of 1913 nickels. There was no change to the date placement, so the dates on many early buffalo nickels have been completely worn off. As the series progressed, the date was gradually struck with larger and bolder numerals, which ameliorated the problem.
Often, dateless buffalo nickels can have their dates “restored” by applying a ferric chloride solution to the date area. From a collecting standpoint this destroys the value of the coin, taking it from “very worn” to “very worn and chemically damaged”. In addition to weak dates, many buffalo nickels — especially those minted in Denver or San Francisco in the 1920s — are found with the horn and/or tail on the reverse, or the word “LIBERTY” on the obverse, badly struck and lacking complete detail. The 1926-D is particularly noted for these defects.
Four valuable varieties exist in the series. In 1918 some of the Denver mint nickels were minted from a redated 1917 die. The resulting 1918/7-D overdate is a rare and sought-after coin. This previously occurred with 1914 Philadelphia strikes, showing traces of a 3 under the last digit in the date. Also, in 1937 excessive polishing of a Denver mint die following a die clash removed most of the right foreleg, leading to the famous “three legged” variety. One estimate is that the number released may be only about 20,000, and specimens in higher grades are particularly valuable. Collectors should be cautious when purchasing this variety since counterfeits have been extensively produced. A 1936-D “3½ leg” variety also exists. However, the most valuable is the 1916 doubled die. The most well preserved examples of this variety trade for between $250,000 and $500,000 when they appear at public auction.
Some 1.2 billion buffalo nickels were issued during the coin’s 26-year lifespan, and only one date/mintmark combination (the 1926-S) had a mintage of less than 1 million. No buffalo nickels were made in 1922, 1932, or 1933. The lack of 1922 nickels, as well as some other denominations, resulted from the Mint’s placing a priority on silver dollar production due to an economic recession that year, and no nickels — and many other denominations — were issued in 1932 or 1933 due to the Great Depression.
Because some consider this design to be one of the best ever used in American coinage, the Mint has reused the design on the 2001 commemorative buffalo dollar and the American Buffalo gold bullion coin, a series that began in 2006.
Jefferson nickel (1938–2003)
The Jefferson nickel, designed by Felix Schlag in a Mint-sponsored contest, was minted beginning in 1938. In 1966 his initials were added to the base of the bust. The obverse features a left-facing profile of Thomas Jefferson adapted from a marble bust sketched from life by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse features an elevation image of Jefferson’s Virginia estate, Monticello. The steps on the building were slightly modified during 1939, but otherwise the design did not change until 2003. All three mints turned out vast quantities of Jefferson nickels until 1954, when San Francisco halted production for 14 years, resuming only from 1968 to 1970, although it still produces proof coins. Since 1970 all nickels for circulation have been minted at Philadelphia and Denver. Mint marks may be found on the reverse, in the right field between Monticello and the rim, on nickels from 1938 to 1964. From 1965 to 1967 no mint marks were used regardless of where the coins were struck, and beginning in 1968, the mint mark was moved to the obverse, just below the date, where it remains today. In 1980, the Philadelphia mint began using a “P” mint mark on all nickels. This design is by far the most common currently in circulation.
From mid-1942 to 1945, so-called Wartime composition nickels were created. These coins are 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese. The only other U.S. coins to use manganese are the Sacagawea and presidential dollars. These coins are usually a bit darker than regular nickels, said to be due to their manganese content (as was true of many British coins minted from 1920 through 1947). However, carefully-protected proof sets of these coins are difficult to tell from the standard alloy. A more likely reason for the darker appearance of the wartime coin was due to exposure to sulfur during circulation, which invariably gave the coins a mild and somewhat distinctive dark silver tarnish.
The wartime nickel features the largest mint mark to grace a United States coin, located above Monticello’s dome on the reverse. This mark was a large D, S, or P, as appropriate for each mint. Nickels of this series minted in Philadelphia have the unique distinction of being the only U.S. coins minted prior to 1979 to bear a P mint mark. There are eleven coins in the regular series (plus a moderately scarce overdate, the 1943/2-P), and they can be purchased in circulated condition at low cost. When the price of silver rose in the 1960s the “war nickels” quickly disappeared from circulation, a process often aided by their distinctive silver-tarnish appearance, which sometimes appeared in banded form from contact of coins with sulfur-containing elastic bands in pockets. Many of these nickels were melted for their silver content. Accordingly, the mint production numbers are probably skewed when compared to other nickels.
An unofficial variety of the wartime coin dated 1944 was made in 1954 when counterfeit nickels were produced by Francis LeRoy Henning of Erial, New Jersey. He had previously been arrested for counterfeiting $5 bills. The 1944 nickels were quickly spotted since Henning neglected to add the large mintmark. He also made counterfeit nickels dated 1939, 1946, 1947, and possibly 1953 as well as one other unidentified date. It is estimated that more than 100,000 of Henning’s nickels reached circulation. These can still be found in pocket change, and there is a thriving collectors’ market for them, although owning a counterfeit is technically illegal. Henning dumped another 200,000 nickels in Copper Creek, New Jersey, of which only 14,000 were recovered. Another 200,000 are thought to have been dumped in the Schuylkill River. When caught, Henning was sentenced to 3 years in jail, and was required to pay a $5,000 fine.