While the identities of the models for the Indian on the nickel is open for debate, such isn’t the case for the model used for the buffalo. A buffalo named Black Diamond, who was a resident of the New York Zoological Park served as the model. Fraser exercised some artistic freedom to depict the buffalo as though he was still on the Great Plains.
Some years after the release of the nickel, Black Diamond was sold to a meat packing plant, which then traded upon his fame by selling “Black Diamond” steaks despite many attempts to save him. The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin convention sometime during the 1980’s.
Fraser was so fascinated by the American Indian, that it should be no surprise that he chose an Indian design for the 5-cent coin design. Fraser, who grew up in Dakota Territory in the 1880’s was a witness to the slaughter of the American Buffalo and the destruction of the way of life of American Indians of the Great Plains. By creating the Buffalo Nickel, Fraser was able to honor and preserve an important part of our American History.
The preliminary sketches were rather impressive and Mint Director George E. Roberts, who also held that post when President Roosevelt revamped the coinage, was highly enthusiastic about them. While the designs were quickly approved by Secretary MacVeagh, quite some time passed while various officials argued among themselves how the details should appear on the coin. By June 26, 1912, Roberts had tentatively approved plaster models of the new five-cent coin although he did request that Fraser lower the relief somewhat.
During the summer of 1912, all was going well and a finished product was close at hand, or so it would seemed. The Hobbs Company of New York, which was a manufacturer of coin-operated vending machines, got wind of the planned design changes on the five-cent piece and wanted to review the designs as they feared the new design might not work in their vending machines.
Several months of bickering, changes, etc. ensued between Hobbs, Fraser, MacVeagh, etc. In December of 1912, MacVeagh grew tired of the entire mess and ordered that Fraser be allowed to complete his work. In late 1912/early 1913, models went to Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who oversaw the preparation of dies and the striking of pattern coins early in January 1913. It is known that Barber was cooperative in the effort, which was rather uncharacteristic of him considering that the coin being replaced was one he designed and he had little or no input into the new design.
Everything seemed to be going well until, somehow, a pattern coin fell into the hands of one of the Hobbs folks and the design war flared up again. Changes were asked and the Mint Bureau agreed. The changes were accommodated without sacrificing artistic creativity and once again all seemed well as the folks at the Hobbs Company seemed to be content.
On the surface everything seemed fine, the on-site engineer indicated his satisfaction with the then current situation. However, once the engineer returned to Hobbs Company Headquarters in New York, all hell broke loose. The Hobbs Company Officials did an about-face. The company quickly wrote the Mint that the latest pattern was totally unacceptable to them and produced a long list of additional changes that also would have to be made.
Fraser complained to MacVeagh about the circus-like atmosphere going on. MacVeagh tended to agree and asked Mint Director Roberts to settle the matter quietly by not asking the artist to do anything more. Roberts saw the matter differently and ordered Fraser to work on the latest list of Hobbs’ demands. It was now nearly the middle of February 1913., and there was no end in sight to the bickering. The artist complained once again to the Treasury Department.
On Frebruary15th, MacVeagh set up a final conference that was held with all interested parties. MacVeagh put an end to the conflicts and approved the most recent designs. Production began on February 21, 1913 with a single coining press at the Philadelphia Mint bean turning out the new nickels at the rate of 120 a minute.
As the coins entered into circulation, public reaction was mixed. Although MacVeagh promised the nickel would be “immensely interesting and beautiful.” The New York Times condemned the new nickel as a “travesty on artistic effect.” Other critics said the coin’s “rough” surfaces would encourage counterfeiters.
Unfortunately, the biggest complaint, and the one that would plague the coin forever was the complaint about the nickel’s inability to withstand heavy use. One coin collector’s magazine predicted that the slightest wear would obliterate the date and the inscription Five Cents “beyond understanding.”
Sure enough, although the new nickel had only been in circulation about a month, it was noticed that the lettering for the words “Five Cents” on the Buffalo Nickels was indeed wearing away. The words were positioned within the outline of the raised mound on which the buffalo was standing. The early coins showed the bison standing on a grassy mound.
For the new version, engraver Charles Barber cut away the base of the mound to make a straight line. He also lowered the words Five Cents so the rim would protect them from wear.
Collectors noticed right away that the inscription was clearer. But the changes did not help the date on the other side of the coin. Excessive wear of the numerals continued to plague the Buffalo Nickels. Barber again made some minor modifications in 1916, by lowering the relief of the head and strengthening several details, including the nose. In addition, the lettering of the word LIBERTY was made heavier.
While the date problem was well known and with all the modifications Barber made, he never addressed the problem of the date wearing down too rapidly. That was unfortunate as now we see all the games being played with acid, etc. in an attempt to restore dates. By the end of 1937 planning for the Buffalo Nickel’s successor was well under way, as the design’s required 25 years would end the following year. It was to be replaced by the third coin to bear a likeness of one of our presidents, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Nickel continues in production with some modifications to this day.