The US Mint fiddled with metal combinations after the Civil War. Years prior, they produced three- and five-cent pieces in silver for years. The latter were known as half dimes from the 1790’s. They were smaller than dimes, and perhaps not as easy to handle as other coins.
Until the 1860’s, most coins possessed the value in precious metal approximately equal to their face value. Problem was, as gold (1849) and silver (1860s) were discovered in the American West, values could fluctuate for once-scarce metals. Sometimes it paid off to melt down a coin for its greater value as raw silver or gold.
Enter the nickel in 1866. The Mint hedged its bet for some years, still producing half dimes. But in 1874 the Mint pulled the plug on silver five-cent pieces. The nickel had the five-cent stage to itself.
Some interesting facts:
- The nickel has always been 75% copper. The outer layers of today’s dimes, quarters, and half dollars are made of the same blend.
- The 75-25 mixture is more challenging to work with than gold, silver, or copper. The advantage is durability, but that means that it will wear out the minting dies faster.
- Each nickel costs the US Mint 9 cents to produce. Another example of the government bowing to pressures other than financial* to keep its constituents happy.
- The Mint spent some time settling on design details in the 1860’s. The “heads” side didn’t have a head of Liberty, but a shield. One early design had rays on the “tails” side. But when these were removed in 1867, some people interpreted one design or the other as counterfeit.
- In 1883, the new Liberty design neglected to put “cents” anywhere on the coin–only a “V.” Some enterprising but unscrupulous folks plated the new nickels in gold and passed them off as $5 gold pieces.
- Production of the iconic “Buffalo Nickel” began in 1913, as part of a continuing program initiated by President Teddy Roosevelt to beautify and update the designs of all coins.
Today, it is possible to find nickels dated as early as 1938 in circulation. (Example: last year I found a coin from 1940 in my pocket.) That’s when Thomas Jefferson replaced the Indian on the “heads” side. He was the third president to appear on a permanent basis. Nickel’s disadvantage as a hard metal means that specimens tend to wear more slowly. A 1940 coin will usually have blurred details, but it will be easily identifiable as a nickel–not particularly old-looking.
It will be more of a challenge for a casual collector to amass a complete set of nickels. Some years some mints only produced a few million pieces. During World War II, nickel was needed for the war effort, so the mint substituted silver and manganese as minority metals in the blend. 1942-45 coins are easy to identify: the mint marks were enlarged and placed above Monticello. (Until 1964, they were to the right of the building and pretty small.) Wartime nickels are also magnetic, thanks to the nine-percent inclusion of element #25.
The bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition inspired some recent alterations to the nickel’s design, both temporary (2004) and permanent (2006). You can catch a summary here.
My sense is that the nickel is the Jan Brady of the American coin family. It doesn’t stand out as the only bronze coin like the cent. It isn’t silver and doesn’t tone or develop nice colors as it ages. No goddess. No buffalo. The changes in 2004-2006 didn’t attract that much excitement, very much unlike the State Quarter program. The good news is that a collector can assemble a complete set from the year 1938 without an enormous expenditure. This is partly because not many collectors care to do so.
* It’s well known that a more responsible policy would be to end the production of one-cent and five-cent pieces as well as halt the printing of dollar bills.