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A History of the United States Nickel

Updated on October 12, 2018

People have known about gold and silver for thousands of years, and have used these metals to produce coins for nearly as long. Nickel however, wasn’t even known as a unique element until 1751. Even thought it was a latecomer to coinage, Nickel has an interesting history. The word “Nickel” comes from the middle ages when miners in Europe were mining what they thought was copper ore. The ore was actually nickel ore, and thus they didn’t have much success refining it into copper. As they weren’t aware of the existence of nickel, they did what any good medieval person did, blamed the failure on supernatural forces. In particular, a sneaky sprite named Nickel. The ore was named Kupfernickel (Nickel’s copper). The name of the ore stuck, and centuries later, Baron Axel Cronstedt tried again to get copper from Kupfernickel. He had a similar lack of success, but investigated further and managed to extract nickel. He named the metal “Nickel” due to the type of ore that produced it.

United States Nickel Coins

Nickel is a relatively new addition to United States coinage.  Earlier five cent coins were small silver coins called half dimes.  When the Civil War started, silver became scarce and an alloy of copper and nickel was used to make half dimes.  At the time they were still called half dimes and it wasn’t until later that the word “Nickel” came to mean a five cent piece.

One Cent & Three Cent Nickels

The first coins called “Nickels” were not five cent pieces, but Indian Head cents. Between 1859 and 1864 the cent was made from a mixture of nickel and copper, giving it different appearance than earlier cents. During this period the coin became known as a “nick” or “nickel”. The composition of the Indian head cent was changed to copper and zinc in 1865, but a three cent “nickel” was released in the same year, again a copper-nickel alloy. This coin was never that popular and only lasted 24 years before being discontinued by the United States government.

The Shield Nickel

The Shield Nickel was the first modern five cent nickel. It was designed by James Longacre (also the designer of the Indian head cent) and released in 1866. Confusingly, both the half dime and the five cent nickel were produced from 1866 to 1873, when the half dime was discontinued. The shield nickel was primarily copper, having only 25% nickel content, but this made the alloy harder than the metals used for other coins. Due to this, many five cent nickels from this period have lighter impressions than other coins. The hardness of the alloy also caused the dies to crack more often. In response to these problems , the design was changed somewhat, but the problems remained until the Liberty Head nickel replaced the Shield nickel.

The Liberty Head Nickel

In 1883 the Liberty Head (also known as the “V” nickel due to the roman number five on the reverse) was introduced to replace the Shield nickel. Initially, the coin did not include the word “Cent”. This allowed counterfeiters to plate the nickel in gold and pass it off as a five dollar piece. A year after the coin’s introduction, the word “cents” was added to the coin. From 1884 to 1912, the design remained unchanged (except for the date, of course). Although production ceased in 1912, five 1913 Liberty Head nickels were secretly produced at the mint by persons unknown. These nickels reappeared in 1920, and today are some of the most valuable United States coins in existence. One recently selling for over five million dollars.

The Buffalo Nickel

The Liberty Head nickel was replaced in 1913 with the Indian Head or Buffalo nickel. Three separate Native American chiefs were used to crate the portrait on the front. The buffalo on the back of the coin was modeled after an actual buffalo at the Central Park Zoo. The coin was popular when it was released, but remained in circulation for only 25 years. It is still a very popular coin with collectors, and in 2006 the United States Mint released an American Buffalo 50 dollar coin with a design very similar to the buffalo nickel. Unfortunately, the coin was released for the collector’s market and it sells for over a thousand dollars today.

The Jefferson Nickel

The Jefferson nickel replaced the Buffalo Head nickel in 1938 and is still in production today, although there have been some significant design changes recently. The original design on the front of the coin was based on a marble bust of Jefferson that had been created during his lifetime. The back of the coin shows Monticello, Jefferson’s home. These nickels had a 25% nickel / 75% copper alloy until 1942 when metal shortages of World War II forced a composition change to 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese. These coins can be identified by a large mint mark above Monticello on the back of the coin and a slightly darker color. After the war, the nickel’s composition returned to the same nickel and copper alloy.

The Jefferson Nickel: Recent Changes

Lewis and Clark’s 1803 expedition was commemorated by two designs on the back of 2004 nickels.  This was taken one step further in 2005, when two more commemorative designs were used on the back, a third Louis and Clark commemorative and a forth design featuring a buffalo.  The front of the 2005 coin was also redesigned with a new image of Jefferson.  In 2006 a third portrait of Jefferson was used and the reverse changed back to the original image of Monticello.  This is the design that is used to this day.

Wooden Nickels

Wooden nickels never officially existed as currency. A few remote rural areas used them locally when there was a shortage of metal coinage, but this was uncommon. The majority of wooden nickels were produced as advertising tokens or collectibles. Examples exist from the late 1880s, but they became very popular in the 1930s. They are still found today, and there are a number of companies that produce custom “wooden nickels” for about 10 to 20 cents each. The common phrase “Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels” refers to the fact that wooden nickels officially have no value.

Hobo Nickels

The term “Hobo Nickel” has come to mean any coin that has been altered by creating a new design from the existing design. By far the most common coin used for this is the Buffalo nickel. The large area taken up by the Indian head (over 80% of the coin) gives the sculptor much more room to work than most coins. The low cost of the coin also made it attractive as a base for carving, especially during the depression years, when money was scarce.  Some of the classic “Hobo Nickel” artist's works have become highly collectible, and there are still artists today creating new designs.

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    • profile image

      Linda 

      5 years ago

      Is there any real difference beewetn the Pennsylvania (P) and Denver (D) mints?Also, they continue to make the Indian head/Buffalo nickels in 24k gold, no? If so, how would you obtain one other than trading over the internet? For instance, my aunt got me the state quarters from the post office as they were newly issued. Could I do the same with the 24k nickels?Also, congratulations on an excellent collection!

    • profile image

      Goes 

      5 years ago

      If you are looking tuohrgh change or rolls the cents would be best. There are the 1998,1999 and 2000 wide AM coins. The AM in America have a wide space between them. then there is the 1992 and 1992-D close AM. Then here is the 1995 doubled die obverse,1984 double ear, 1983 doubled die reverse, 1970 small date (high 7) and the 1969-S doubled die obverse. The above coins sell for $4.00 to several hundred depending on which one you find. Hope this helps.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 

      5 years ago

      It is amazing how many different nickels there were. And if you look at five cent pieces, it all started with the half dime.

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