Treasure in Your Pocket Change - WarTime Nickels (35% Silver)
I suspect the 1950s were probably the ideal time for collecting U.S. coins from pocket change. You could find Mercury dimes and Buffalo nickels daily. Even the older Barber dimes and the Liberty or Shield nickels would turn up now and then. Standing Liberty Quarters and Half Dollars were common. Indian Head pennies were more unusual but not impossible to find and if you wanted real silver dollars - Peace and Morgan - all you needed to do was go to the bank and ask for them.
That's certainly not the case today. Even Wheat pennies, still easily found just a few years ago, are now scarce. Silver coins turn up now and then, but rarely.
But there is one coin series where valuable dates still exist in circulation.
That's the Jefferson Nickel, first minted in 1938 and unchanged through 2003. There are rare dates to be found, though not easily, of course. But there are certain nickels that are worth much more than face value that often pass unnoticed because most people don't know to look for them. I have scooped dozens out of low stakes poker pots and found many more in merchants change. The supply is slowly drying up, but they still exist and probably will for some time to come.
Wartime Silver Nickels
I'm talking about the so-called "War Time" nickels, minted from 1942 to 1945. Some of these contain silver, .062 ounces worth actually, which makes them worth approximately a dollar at current silver price.
Note that there is a refining cost; you can't just multiply the price of .999 silver times .062 ounces. Because of alloy (35% silver, 56% copper, 9% manganese) is harder to refine, these coins are worth far less than their apparent silver content. If dealers are offering a dollar for silver dimes (which have appx. .088 ounces of silver), they will probably be paying about 60 cents for these War Nickels.
Identifying Silver Nickels
So how do you spot a silver nickel in change? The color is a little different than other nickels, tending to be a dull or muddy light gray color. They also feel different when you run your fingers over them and will definitely sound much different when dropped on a hard surface. When these were more common in change, you'd sometimes see them with green corrosion and, on less worn coins, with loose laminated metal surfaces (apparently there was some difficulty in creating this alloy).
But the biggest clue is on the reverse side of the coin, right over the Monticello building.
The Big Mintmark
Do you see that big "P' over the building? That's the only clue you need. If you see a "P", a "D" or an "S", you have a War Time 35% silver nickel in your hand.
The picture that follows is a non-silver nickel - it has an "D" mintmark, but it's tiny and to the right of the building. Many nickels (all those minted in Philadelphia before 1980 ) have no mintmark at all, but all of the silver nickels have that large mint mark above Monticello.
The Why and the Wherefore
As noted above, these were a copper, silver and manganese alloy and were a bit difficult to make. Why would the Mint go to all that trouble?
The reason for the specific alloy was that the coin had to work in pay phones and vending machines just like a normal nickel. Not only did the weight have to match, but so did its electrical resistance. It took some experimentation to come up with a mix that would work, and this was the result.
But why do it at all? Why not just continue to make ordinary nickels?
The official explanation is that nickel was needed for tank armor, but there are some who dispute that. They point out that we were importing nickel from Canada in large amounts and did not need to take it out of our nickels, but did so for propaganda value. That could be true: the total nickel needed for all the nickel coins of the war years would have been less than 6,000 tons all together and Canada was sending us more than 100,000 tons yearly according to those doubters.
I said these were made from 1942 to 1945, but not all 1942 nickels are silver. The mints started making the silver versions rather late in the year; you need to look for that big mintmark. If it's not there, you don't have a silver nickel.
If you see a 1944 nickel without a mintmark, it's actually a counterfeit, but don't throw it away in disgust. See the "Henning Nickels" section below.
There is another very rare 1942 with a small "S" mintmark to the right of Monticello. It is so rare that only one is known, so that would be quite a find.
There is a somewhat more valuable "1943/2" variety that is fairly hard to spot. Even with magnification, it's hard to notice the difference. It's worth looking hard though, because that particular variation is worth a lot more than any other silver nickel - probably at least $20 or so.
There is also a "Double Die Obverse" variety, which is quite rare in high grade, but again it's not easy to spot these.
1944 - the Henning Nickels
The most interesting thing about the 1944 nickels is that you might find one without the big mintmark on the reverse. These are counterfeits, but strangely enough people do buy them, sometimes rather openly. As counterfeits, they are of course illegal, but enough exist that there is a market nonetheless.
You might wonder what on earth would cause someone to counterfeit a lowly nickel?
Well, in 1954 (which was when the FBI caught wind of Francis Leroy Henning's private nickel production) a nickel had purchasing power roughly equal to 50 cents in 2010, so it wasn't as little money as you might think. Henning may have made half a million of these, though not all were dated 1944. It was the 1944's that tripped him up though, as he didn't put the big mintmark on his. That made it very obvious to the FBI and they soon tracked him down and arrested him.
Supposedly Henning made other dates because when he took some of his first efforts to the bank, a teller commented that it was odd that all the dates were the same. Having the extra expense may have upset his profit margins; after conviction he is said to have claimed that he actually lost money overall.
I have found many very nice 1945's in change. There were a lot of these made - even the "S" (San Francisco) mint, which often produces less coins than the other mints, pumped out over 58 million of them in 1945, so they were not hard to find.
As in 1943, there is a 1945 "Double Die Obverse", not easy for the untrained eye and not worth as much as the 1943 version.
There are some very rare 1942-P and 1943-P nickels (with the big mintmark on the back) that were produced on on ordinary copper-nickel blanks. If you were lucky enough to find one of these, you wouldn't want to toss it out - those would be worth a lot of money (and the likelihood of your finding one is very close to zero).
Also, some 1946 nickels were minted on silver blanks, but you aren't very likely to find one of those, either. They would not have the big mintmark so you'd have to go by feel or sound - which is easy to get wrong, of course.
Other Rarer Nickels
The silver nickels are not the only rare nickels to be found. The 1939-d and 1950-d nickels are worth much more than face value, but are very hard to find - I have never found either of these in change and started looking for them in 1955!
Now that you know what to look for, you should be able to find at least a few of these even today. No, they are not common any longer, but they do still exist: I found the one in the photo above just this year. Happy hunting!
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