U.S. nickels: how many do you remember?

Ken Marich

U. S. nickels have had an interesting history and played a great role in American numismatics. Previous to the five-cent nickel the government issued silver half-dimes from 1794-1873. Based on silver hoarding these coins disappeared rapidly from circulation. In 1864 congress authorized the creation of a new five-cent piece made of copper-nickel alloy instead of silver. The first series was the Shield nickel minted from 1866-1883 followed by the Liberty nickel minted from 1883-1913. After 30 years, the Liberty nickel was replaced with the Buffalo nickel (1913-1938) sometimes known as the Indian Head nickel. And after 25 years the Buffalo nickel was replaced with the Jefferson nickel (1938-present). While nickel coins have been around for 152 years they have always been made of the same alloy, copper (75%) and nickel (25%). However, there was an exception during WWII when the nickel was removed for the critical war effort and substituted with silver. This alloy, (56% copper, 35% silver, 9% manganese) only lasted four years (1942-1945) when the nickel returned to the original copper-nickel alloy.

SHIELD NICKEL: The obverse of the Shield nickel displays a “Union Shield” and the reverse a numeral 5 surrounded by stars. The motto “In God We Trust” appears on the Shield nickel but does not appear on the Liberty or Buffalo nickels; it’s seen again on the Jefferson nickels. All Shield nickels were struck at the Philadelphia mint. Current value in fine condition ranges from $35-$600.

LIBERTY NICKEL: The obverse shows a matronly-looking Liberty head with a Roman numeral “V” within a wreath of corn and cotton. The first year (1883) was famous for not including the word “cents” under the “V.” Some of these nickels were gold plated and passed off as $5 gold coins and became known as “recketeer” nickels. Current value in fine condition ranges from $4-$850. And then there is the famous 1913 Liberty nickel. It has a great history and only five are known. In 2014 one 1913 specimen sold for four million dollars.

BUFFALO NICKEL: The popular “Buffalo” nickel was designed by James Earle Fraser. Three Indian men were used as models for the obverse of the coin, they were Iron Tail, Two Moons and John Big Tree. The reverse shows a buffalo standing on a mound (Type I only), later dates show the buffalo standing on a plain often called a line. Buffalo nickels (1913-1938) were minted at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. They are notorious for weak strikes and in circulation the dates would quickly wear off. Many dateless Buffalo nickels became art pieces called “hobo nickels.” Current value in fine condition ranges from $2-$450 with some varieties costing over $3000 dollars.

JEFFERSON NICKEL: After 25 years the design of the nickel was changed to the now common Jefferson nickel. They are seen every day and most people take them for granted, even though this coin has been minted since 1938, now over 80 years. The obverse shows the bust of Jefferson and the reverse depicts “Monticello,” Jefferson’s home. In 2004/05 four new reverse designs were issued to commemorate the Lewis and Clark expedition. With diligence the entire collection can be collected from circulation. The nickel’s existence is now in question as currently it costs about 6.32 cents to make, a losing proposition for our government. The same financial situation now exists for the Lincoln penny. Only time will tell the fate of these two coins.

The SaddleBrooke Coin Club meets the second Thursday of each month in the Sonoran Room of the Mt. View Club House from 7:00-9:00 p.m. See you on November 8. For more info contact Terry Caldwell at 719-246-1822 or  [email protected].