Evolution Of A Denomination Series: Five-Cent Pieces Part Two

We last left off the series covering United States five-cent pieces smack dab in the middle of the Liberty Head (V-Nickel) coins. While the series made a 30-year run, it was time for an upgrade in 1913. Thus, the Indian Head (Buffalo) Nickel was introduced.

Indian Head or Buffalo Nickels (1913-1938)

While Charles Barber’s design of the Liberty Head nickel had been in production since 1883, the coinage fell victim to Theodore Roosevelt’s call for more appealing and classic design changes when it came to United States coinage. As the Coinage Act of 1890 allowed for a change in design after the 25-year minimum, it was not long until the Indian Head, or most commonly known as the Buffalo, nickel would become the next design to take its place. On March 4,1913, the first coins from a bag of the first circulating bag of Buffalo nickels would be given to President Taft and 33 Indian chiefs at the ceremony for the groundbreaking of the National Memorial to the North American Indian at Fort Wadsworth, New York.

Designed by former assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens and an accomplished artist himself, James Earle Fraser employed three different Native Americans as models for the profile of the rugged chief on the obverse of the famed Buffalo nickel. His initial, ‘F’, is featured just below the date that sits at the bottom left of the design. The reverse of the nickel is said to be modeled after the bison Black Diamond who was featured at the New York Central Park Zoo. The coins were produced at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco with a number varieties stemming for the first year of production (1913), 1916, 1918, 1935, and 1936.

Jefferson Nickels (1938-2003)

After 25 years of the Buffalo nickel being in production, the required minimum for a design change to take place, the popular design was retired without any given reason. However, the design change could not be contested and therefore, the hunt for a new five-cent nickel design was on.

Early on in 1938, the United States Treasury Department announced an open, public competition for the design to replace the Buffalo nickel. The new coin would honor Thomas Jefferson and the competition rules stated that the obverse needed to feature an authentic portrait of Jefferson and that the reverse needed to portray a version of Monticello, which was his home near Charlottesville. The contest was open to anyone who could complete the task assigned or the requirements specified by the Mint. Around 390 designs, or models as they are referred to, were submitted and it was those of Felix Schlag that were selected. A German-American sculptor, he was awarded a $1,000 prize in April of 1938 for his designs.

The Jefferson nickel design features the profile of the third President of the United States facing left. Dressed in a coat and wig from that time period, he is surrounded by the inscriptions “IN GOD WE TRUST” and “LIBERTY” on either side of him. The date can also be seen to the right of him next to “LIBERTY” with the mint mark just below it. The reverse features a straight view of his home with the inscription “MONTICELLO” just beneath it. Around the edges of the design are the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” “FIVE CENTS,” and “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

The design was struck at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints and comprised of 75% copper and 25% nickel. This is until 1942 when the Second World War caused the composition to change. In a number of wartime efforts to give the United States a boost, nickel was eliminated from the coin altogether as it was an essential wartime material. On October 8, 1942, the five-cent Jefferson piece was composed of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. A larger mint mark was also placed above Monticello on the reverse to distinguish the coinage from the rest of the series as it was also the first time that a “P” mint mark for Philadelphia was used for the first time. This special wartime alloy was used from 1942 to 1945 when the war was over. In 1946, the prewar composition and mint marks were resumed to normal.

In 1966, a small change to the obverse would set apart the Jefferson nickel series once again. The initials of the designer, Felix Schlag, would appear just below the bust of Jefferson. In 1968, the mint marks were then moved to the obverse. The design remained unchanged until 2003.

Westward Journey Nickel (2004-2005)

In 2004, the United States Mint decided to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark expedition of the territory. The 2004 nickel design reverse featured an adaptation of the original Indian Peace medal commissioned for their journey by Mint sculptor Norman E. Nemeth. The original medals featured Thomas Jefferson’s portrait on one side and the symbols of peace and friendship on the other side. They were presented to the Native Americans as a token of goodwill by the United States. The other reverse of the 2004 nickel, referred to as the Keelboat reverse, was designed depicting the boat that carried the Lewis & Clark expedition and all their supplies through the Louisiana Territory.

The 2005 featured a new portrait of Jefferson on the obverse that was inspired by a marble bust from 1789. The “Liberty” inscription on the obverse was also inspired by the president’s handwriting. One of the reverses for 2005 featured the American Bison in a profile view as designed by Jamie Franki and sculpted by Norman E. Nemeth. The bison held quite a bit of significance to the American Indian culture. The second reverse was called the “Ocean in View” design and depicts cliffs over the Pacific Ocean. This featured design was inspired by an entry left in William Clark’s journal exclaiming “Ocean in view! O! The joy!” Those words appear on the reverse as well.

Modified Jefferson Nickel (2006-Date)

After the Westward Journey series of Jefferson nickels, the 2006-dated coins would return with a modified portrait of Jefferson on the obverse. He would now appear to be facing forward instead of in profile as designed by Jamie Franki and sculpted by Donna Weaver from the Mint. This current design is featured on current-dated coins and are produced at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints in both Proof and Circulation strikes.

The Official 2021 Red Book; NGCCoin.com