Nickel (U.S. coin)

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U.S. Nickel
Value: 0.05 U.S. dollars
Mass: 5.000 g
Diameter: 21.21 mm
Thickness: 1.95 mm
Edge: plain
Composition: 75% Cu, 25% Ni
Missing image

Design: Thomas Jefferson
Designer: Joe Fitzgerald
Design Date: 2004

The United States five cent coin, commonly called a nickel, is a unit of currency equaling one-twentieth, or five-hundredths, of a United States dollar.

The nickel's design since 1938 has featured a profile of President Thomas Jefferson on the obverse. From 1938 to 2003, Monticello was featured on the reverse. For 2004 and 2005, nickels are featuring new designs to commemorate the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. These new designs are called the Westward Journey nickel series.


General history

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 debased during World War II). They were designed as 5 grams in the metric units when they were introduced in 1866, shortly before the Act of July 28, 1866 declared the metric system to be legal for use in the United States.

Applying the term "nickel" to a coin actually precedes the usage of five-cent pieces made from nickel alloy. The term was originally applied to the Indian cent coin from 1859-1864 which was 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 hit the spotlight 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 — mostly in remote, rural areas — the price for such calls remained at a nickel as late as the mid-1970s. 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, in many cities.

Shield nickels (1866-1883)

The shield nickel, designed by James B. Longacre, was the first nickel five-cent piece minted in the United States. 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.

Shield nickels with and without rays
Shield nickels with and without rays

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" nickels (1883-1913)

V nickel with and without "cents"
V nickel with and without "cents"

V Nickels were officially minted from 1883-1912. However, an unknown mint official illegally produced an unknown quantity of "V" Nickels with the date 1913. There are currently only 5 known genuine examples of this 1913 coin (though many counterfeits exist), making them some of the most valuable coins in existence. The "Olsen specimen", named for a previous owner, was auctioned in 2003 for $3 million. 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 a coin dealer from Texas who in the 1930s placed advertisements in newspapers throughout the United States offering $50 for one of these nickels. No one took him up on the offer, but numismatists credit his search as contributing to increased interest in coin collecting.

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-mute 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 [1] (

"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.

Buffalo nickel (1913-1938)

The buffalo nickel (also known as the Indian head 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.

Missing image
Buffalo nickel

The buffalo nickel, as designed by James Earle Fraser, featured a profile of Oglala Sioux Chief Sinte Maza or "Iron Tail" on the obverse and an American Bison (buffalo) on the reverse. Fraser said that the Indian profile was a composite of three chiefs: John Big Tree, Iron Tail and Two Moons. The model for the buffalo was "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.

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. 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. 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.

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 in that year, and no nickels — and many other denominations — were issued in 1932 or 1933 due to the Great Depression.

Jefferson nickel (1938-)

The Jefferson nickel, designed by Felix Schlag in a Mint-sponsored contest, has been minted since 1938. The obverse features a profile of Thomas Jefferson, while the reverse features his Virginian estate, Monticello. All three mints turned out vast quantities of Jefferson nickels until 1954, when San Francisco halted production for 14 years, resuming only from 1968-1970. 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, 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.

Wartime nickels

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. coin to use manganese is the Sacagawea dollar. These coins are usually a bit darker than regular nickels, due to their manganese content (as was true of many British coins minted from 1920 through 1947), and feature the largest mint mark ever to grace a United States coin, located above Monticello's dome on the reverse. Nickels of this series minted in Philadelphia have the unique distinction of being the only US coins minted prior to 1979 to bear a "P" mint mark.

As collectibles

Jefferson nickels are one of the easiest sets of any denomination to collect from circulation. One can still find coins from the 1940s in circulation on occasion. Many Jefferson nickel collectors look for fully struck steps on the image of Monticello. Premiums are paid for coins with five or six full steps. These are fairly rare, even on current issues. Proofs and special mint set coins (1965-1967), as well as matte proofs, exist, and have value above circulating coinage.

Westward Journey nickel series

Throughout the 20th century, Congress allowed the U.S. Mint to make changes to coinage every 25 years without specific authorization. Since the 1990s the government had begun to respond to lobbying in favor of changing coinage design. This led to the State Quarters series and in 2002, a proposal to change 2003 nickels as well. Initial proposals by the Mint had a new obverse based on a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, and a reverse with an American Indian and a bald eagle facing west.

Congressman Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the Chief Deputy Majority Whip for his party, objected to the lack of consultation with Congress about their proposal, and was particularly concerned that Monticello, located in his district, would not return to the reverse of the nickel in 2006. Some raised the issue that the Mint's proposed new reverse did not relate specifically enough to Lewis & Clark or the Louisiana Purchase, the events that the proposed changes were meant to commemorate. This led to the enactment of Public Law 108-15, the American 5-cent Coin Design Continuity Act, in 2003. This act, originally dubbed the Keep Monticello on the Nickel Act by Cantor, modified the United States Code to require the return to a depiction of Monticello starting in January 2006, and permanently eliminate the Mint's right to change it again without Congressional approval. The delay and controversy meant the Mint ran out of time to change the reverse of the nickel in 2003.

Upon passage of Cantor's new law, the Mint proposed the Westward Journey nickel series. The series consisted of two new reverse designs for 2004 and two for 2005.

2004 designs

In 2004, the reverse of the nickel changed, with two different designs during the year. The first design, placed into circulation March 1, 2004, featured a design on the reverse based upon a rendition of the original Indian Peace Medal commissioned for Lewis and Clark's expedition. It was designed by Norman E. Nemeth.

Missing image
Westward Journey Nickel #1, Reverse

Missing image
Westward Journey Nickel #2, Reverse

In the autumn of 2004, the reverse changed again to feature a view of the keelboat in full sail that transported members of the Corps of Discovery expedition and their supplies through the rivers of the Louisiana Territory. This design depicts Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in full uniform, standing in the bow of the keelboat. This nickel was designed by Al Maletsky.

2005 designs

On September 16, 2004, the U.S. Mint unveiled its new designs for 2005. They had been chosen by John W. Snow on July 22, 2004 but were not disclosed to the public. The U.S. Mint revealed that the Felix Schlag depiction of Thomas Jefferson was being done away with in favor of a more modern depiction of Jefferson. The new obverse of the Jefferson nickel was designed by Joe Fitzgerald and engraved by Don Everhart II. Its circulation began on February 28, 2005.

Missing image
Westward Journey Nickel #3, Reverse

Missing image
Westward Journey Nickel #4, Reverse

Also unveiled on September 16, 2004 were two new reverses. A depiction of the American bison temporarily returns to the reverse after a 67-year absence. The new reverse was designed by Jamie N. Franki and engraved by Norman E. Nemeth. The U.S. Mint had been lobbied to include the American bison on the nickel in the hope of keeping the public interested in its continuing recovery after nearly being hunted to extinction after the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

The final Westward Journey nickel reverse was designed by Joe Fitzgerald and engraved by Donna Weaver. It depicts the Pacific Ocean and the words from William Clark's diary upon reaching it. In a controversial move, the U.S. Mint decided to amend Clark's actual words. He had originally written, "Ocian in view! O! The Joy!" but as the spelling "ocian" is nonstandard, the U.S. Mint decided to modify it.

It is unclear as of 2005 whether the original 1938 portrait of Jefferson or the cropped profile of the 2005 portrait will be used on nickels minted in 2006.

See also

External links and sources

United States currency and coinage
Topics: Federal Reserve note | United States Notes | United States coinage | United States dollar
Currency: $1 | $2 | $5 | $10 | $20 | $50 | $100 | Larger denominations
Coinage: Cent | Nickel | Dime | Quarter | Half-dollar | Dollar

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