Shield Nickels, 1866-1883
The short-lived Shield nickels "With Rays" (above) were replaced during 1867 by the "Without Rays" variety.
Silver half dimes were America's first 5¢ coins, but because all silver coins were hoarded during the Civil War era, the history of "nickels" begins in 1866 when they were introduced to take the place of silver half dimes. Actually containing only 25% nickel along with 75% copper (as would all nickels to date), the Shield nickels of 1866-1883 featured a union shield, widely used during the Civil War era as a symbol of unity.
During 1866 and early 1867, a large numeral "5" on the reverse was surrounded by alternating rays and stars. These short-lived Shield nickels "With Rays" were replaced during 1867 by the "Without Rays" variety for the rest of the series. Except for Shield nickels of 1866-1869 and 1882, mintages remained very small compared to later nickel production.
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Liberty Head "V" Nickels, 1883-1913
Because the word "CENTS" was omitted on the reverse, some 1883 Liberty Head nickels were gold plated and passed off as $5 gold coins.
During 1883, the design of America's 5¢ nickels was changed to the now-famous Liberty Head nickel motif by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber. Liberty is seen on the obverse with a coronet inscribed LIBERTY. Because the reverse featured a large roman numeral V (5), these coins are commonly known as "V" nickels.
Because the word "CENTS" was omitted on the reverse, and because the size of the coin and depiction of Liberty were very similar to Liberty Head $5 gold coins of the era, unscrupulous individuals gold-plated some 1883 Liberty Head nickels and passed them off as $5 gold coins. The most famous was Josh Tatum, who apparently was caught but never convicted because he simply accepted whatever change he received (from 5¢ or $5). After some 5½ million coins were struck, the U.S. Mint added the word CENTS below the roman numeral "5" on the reverse of the Liberty "V" nickels!
An equally interesting event occurred at the end of the series, when five unauthorized 1913 Liberty Head nickels were struck by some mint insider (no other 1913 Liberty nickels were produced). These extremely rare "V" nickels are among the most legendary U.S. coins!
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Buffalo Nickels, 1913-1938
The Buffalo nickel features a uniquely American motif created by James Earle Fraser.
Thanks in large part to motivation from President Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901-1909, most circulating U.S. coins received artistic and highly acclaimed new designs during the early 20th century. A uniquely American motif of a buffalo and Indian chief was created for the nickel by prominent sculptor James Earle Fraser. When introduced in 1913 (Type 1), the buffalo stood on a raised mound inscribed with FIVE CENTS. Because the raised mound caused the inscription to wear off quickly, the design was changed midway through 1913 to protect the words FIVE CENTS in a recessed area below the buffalo. These revered U.S. coins were struck until 1938 in very modest quantities compared to modern nickel mintage.
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Jefferson Nickels, 1938-Date
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, is featured on the Jefferson nickel.
After 25 years with the Buffalo motif, the design of nickels was changed in 1938 to feature the profile of Thomas Jefferson – author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd U.S. president who doubled the size of the country with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. His Virginia home Monticello was depicted on the reverse.
From mid-1942 to 1945 during World War II, Jefferson nickels were struck in a special silver alloy to save nickel for the war effort. But the design remained unchanged for over 65 years from 1938 until 2004, when special designs honored the bicentennial of the 1804-1806 Lewis & Clark Expedition – authorized by President Jefferson to explore the vast new Louisiana Purchase. "Peace Medal" and "Keelboat" reverse designs were struck only in 2004, then a close-up image of Jefferson along with "American Bison" and "Ocean in View" reverse motifs were issued only in 2005. A new forward-facing portrait of Jefferson was introduced in 2006, while the reverse design went back to his home Monticello. This design has continued to the present time.
The Westward Journey nickel series comemmorated the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's expedition, authorized by President Jefferson. Left to right: the 2004, 2005 and 2006 designs.
See all Jefferson nickels: Monticello reverse and Westward Journey