Littleton Coin Company’s Collector’s Corner
[photo: Buffalo Nickels]

Nickel Type Gets Interesting


The new Westward Journey nickel series begun by the Mint in 2004 has provided collectors with a number of different and interesting nickel designs. Even once the series is concluded, it is expected that there will be changes in what had become the familiar Jefferson nickel. Whatever the outcome, it has definitely produced new interest in what had been our most stable denomination, and that suddenly makes a type collection of nickels a much more interesting possibility for all collectors.

Without much attention over the years, the nickel has become the oldest denomination in terms of years of production without a permanent composition change, a fact that is sometimes overlooked. Just as interesting is initially, when the first nickel was authorized by the Act of May 16, 1866, there were already in circulation what people at the time were calling "nickels." These were the new copper-nickel three cent pieces which had first appeared in 1865.

The nickel as we know it today would appear quickly in 1866. It was an emergency issue designed to discourage hoarding. While the Civil War was technically over, the problems of a national coin shortage would continue for years. There were still silver half dimes, but they could not circulate, and Fractional Currency of all denominations, while circulating, was not popular. That was the atmosphere when the new copper-nickel five cent coin made its debut. The first nickel was the Shield nickel, and it received rather mixed reviews. Most were happy with the idea of a five cent coin which could circulate, but few were happy with the design. After a brief period of production, officials were also unhappy with the design. The composition, which is still basically the same today, was a new alloy for the Mint, and apparently, the rays on the reverse were causing problems with the metal flow, meaning good strikes were difficult and dies were cracking far too quickly.

The decision was made to remove the rays, but by that time, there had been a mintage of 14,742,500 Shield nickels in 1866 with the rays and another 2,019,000 in 1867. That makes a Shield nickel with rays a more difficult type, but one which is available. The type which followed without rays was produced from 1867 until the design was replaced in 1883, and is readily available today.

As the Shield nickel had never been popular from an artistic standpoint, it was only a matter of time before it was changed. That time came in 1883 when a new Liberty Head design by Charles Barber was introduced. There were immediate problems, as reports were received that some were taking advantage of the fact that the reverse had no word "Cents," but rather simply a large Roman numeral "V" and were able to gold plate the coins and pass them off as $5 gold pieces. This seems a little hard to believe, but with far less communication back in 1883, it was possible. An immediate change was ordered, and "Cents" was added to the reverse to avoid any future problems. In fact, it is still possible to obtain such so-called "racketeer" nickels with the gold plating today.

[photo: 1866 Shield Nickel]

1866 Shield Nickel

With an initial mintage of 5,474,300, the 1883 Liberty Head nickel without the word "Cents" might normally be a very difficult type coin, especially in Mint State, but surprising amounts of the new design were being saved at the time. As a result, the 1883 "Without Cents" Liberty Head nickel is more available in top grades than might be expected and gives collectors a great opportunity to have a high-grade coin from the 1880s in their collections at a reasonable cost.

With the addition of the word "Cents," the Liberty Head nickel design was set. The design would last until 1913, and along the way, there would be any number of interesting coins, including the 1912-D and 1912-S, which were the first nickels to be produced at a facility other than the main one in Philadelphia. That was made possible by a change in the law which until the early 1900s had not allowed coins containing no gold or silver to be produced at any mint other than Philadelphia.

In the minds of most, the Buffalo nickel designed by James Earle Fraser, which made its debut in 1913, was the best nickel design in history. Even if you dispute its quality, there is no disputing its popularity. Ironically, the Buffalo, like the Shield and then the Liberty Head nickel, also had a quick design modification, creating a short-lived type.

The focus of the change was on the reverse where the bison was standing on raised ground or a mound. There was immediate fear that the FIVE CENTS which was on top of the mound would quickly wear off. Perhaps the problems from 1883 were still in the minds of some, but after some 1913 production, the design was changed to have the bison on a line with the FIVE CENTS recessed.

The initial Variety 1 Buffalo nickels with the bison on the mound or raised ground fortunately were saved in some numbers. It also helped that there was a nearly 31-million-piece mintage at Philadelphia, all of which makes the Variety 1 1913 Buffalo nickel possible for type collectors today.

With their production from 1913 through 1938, the Variety 2 Buffalo nickels are also easily added to a collection, with many dates, especially from the later 1930s, being relatively inexpensive in Mint State, allowing you to truly enjoy one of the great designs in American numismatic history at a modest price.

[photo: 1939-S Jefferson Nickel]

1939-S Jefferson Nickel

In 1938, Felix Schlag won an award of $1,000 in a competition involving some 390 artists, and with that decision, the Jefferson nickel, which would survive basically unchanged until 2004, was created. Up until 2004, there was one major change, but it was not really in the design.

The U.S. entry into World War II saw the nation ill prepared for fighting a global conflict. There were fears of shortages of many required materials to fight the war, and that included copper and nickel. In an emergency effort to conserve the two, the composition of the nickel was change to 56% copper, which was a reduction, 35% silver, and 9% manganese, meaning that for a time, the nickel actually contained no nickel. The new coins were marked by a change in the size and location of the mint mark. It was enlarged and placed above Monticello on the reverse. For the first time in U.S. history, coins produced at Philadelphia also to carried a mint mark. The type would be introduced in the fall of 1942 and would last through 1945.

Virtually all of the wartime silver alloy nickels are available today, and they make a great set, especially as a gift for someone who lived through the period. There is also one somewhat overlooked coin in the group. The Proof Sets of 1942 in some cases had 6 coins including the special 1942-P Wartime silver alloy nickel. That Proof mintage was placed at 27,600, and as Proofs were not offered after 1942 for some years, the 1942-P is the only possible Proof example of the Wartime type. That and its small total mintage make it a very interesting coin to add to a collection today.

Once the regular composition and design returned in 1946, the Jefferson nickel would have basically the same design until 2004. There would be small changes, with the designer’s initials being added in 1966 and the mint mark being moved to the obverse in 1968, along with attempts to strengthen the design being made in 1971, 1972,1977 and 1982, but none of the slight changes is generally considered a different type by collectors today.

The Westward Journey nickel series has added to the number of nickel types since 2004. In fact, in a short period of time, there will be almost as many new nickel types as there had been in the previous history of the denomination. As all are available, it makes a nickel type collection suddenly much larger and more interesting. That seems to be particularly true of the 2005, with a different likeness of Thomas Jefferson and a LIBERTY inscription actually based on his handwriting. It is also worthy of note that one of the two 2005 types features a Bison reverse, reminding many of the James Earle Fraser design, and making another buffalo nickel now part of a nickel type set.

Although the nickel is theoretically going to have a fixed design starting in 2006, the fact is that it has now been shown that changing nickel designs are popular and possible. That could make for additional special nickels in the future. At least for now, this has produced some fascinating new nickels, and perhaps greater interest in the idea of a type set which can trace the entire history of the denomination for you and your family and friends.