The Jefferson Nickel

The Jefferson Nickel

So far the Jefferson Nickel has been a part of the United States coinage for
68 years.  It has become one of the favorites among American collectors. 
The Buffalo Nickel, the predecessor to the Jefferson Nickel, was retired as soon
as the law permitted under the Act of September 25, 1890, and no one seems to
know why.  Some say the government wanted a series of coins with
presidential portraits on them to compliment the stamp series
that was issued in the late 1930s, but that is only conjecture. 
Nevertheless, the design was changed, and the Jefferson Nickel has become
entrenched in the fabric of American coinage.

When the public design contest was announced for a new nickel design,
approximately 390 artists entered for the $1,000 purse before the deadline of
April 15, 1938.  The competing sculptors had to submit two plaster models. 
The first sculpture, of the coin's obverse, was to be a lifelike portrait of the
United States' third President, Thomas Jefferson, and the second was to be of
the new nickel's reverse depicting Jefferson's home, Monticello, which is
located near Charlottesville.  The judges for the competition were three
prominent sculptors, and the Mint Director, Nellie Tayloe.  Just nine days
after the deadline, the winner was announced.  It was Felix Schlag. 
Even though Schlag's designs won the contest, the federal Fine Arts Commission
rejected his design for the reverse of the coin.  Schlag had captured the
more artistic perspective in a side view of the mansion, but the commission
insisted on a full frontal depiction minus the landscaping.  Such a major
design change required a new thinner style of lettering to be use on the coin,
as well as a huge risk in the loss of detail on the building's facade due to the
depth of relief required.  A refusal to comply would mean a forfeiture of
the prize money, so Felix Schlag did what was demanded of him.  With the
designs completed, production began in the second week of September 1938. 
The new nickel weighed 5 grams, with a composition of 25% nickel and 75% copper,
a diameter of 21.2 mm, a plain edge, and the mintmark appearing to the right of

In 1942, with the advent of World War II, nickel, all of a sudden, was
declared a strategic metal which was necessary in the production of munitions. 
The U.S. Mint found itself in competition with the War Department, and there was
just not enough metal for both.  High level discussions were conducted, and
the topic was a non-nickel alloy for the Jefferson 5¢
piece.  In theory, this was not considered a major problem, but often
theory and reality differ greatly.  The problem was legal receptacles,
i.e. pay telephones and vending machines.  Since the primary use for the
nickel, at that time, was for these two types of legal receptacles, and
the counterfeiting detection used in these machines were based on the weight and
electrical resistance of the nickel, then the new alloy used needed to comply
with that of a nickel, or close down the use of millions of machines during
wartime.  The Mint's metallurgists finally resolved the problem, and by an
Act of Congress on March 27, 1942, the new alloy for the nickel was adopted: 35%
silver, 56% copper and 9% manganese.  These new "wartime silver nickels"
were issued from October 1942 through December 1945.

To distinguish these "wartime silver nickels"
from normal issues, a large mintmark was placed on the reverse of the coin just
above the dome of Monticello; "D" for Denver, "S" for San Francisco and "P" for
Philadelphia.  The "P" mintmark, on these nickels are the only time one will
find this mintmark used for Philadelphia until 1980.  As an interesting
side note, there are 1942-P and 1943-P nickels made from nickel known to exist,
just as there are 1946 nickels made from the war time alloy.  The best way
to determine the difference between the alloys is to drop the coin on a counter
top.  The tone emitted from the nickel alloy is different from the tone of
the silver alloy.  This is called the "ring test."

Beginning in 1946 through 1964, the U.S. Mint
returned to the prewar composition and mintmark style of the Jefferson Nickel. 
When the United States government decided to change the composition of the
silver coinage in 1965 resulting in a massive coin shortage for three years, the
nickels for 1965, 1966 and 1967 were produced without mintmarks. In 1966, Felix Schlag's initials "FS" were finally added to the coin below the bust of Thomas
Jefferson.  Credit for this addition to the Jefferson nickel is bestowed
upon the numismatic publication, Coin World for their campaign to
recognize the designer.  In 1968, the mintmark was moved to the obverse of
the nickel just below the date.  Since the introduction of the Jefferson 5¢
piece, there has been a number of minor design modifications made to the
portrait of Jefferson, and most of these have been in the details of his
powdered wig (peruque) and its ribbon.  The most notable changes occurred
in 1971, 1972, 1977 and 1982.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased
the territory of Louisiana from the French Monarch Napoleon, who acquired the
territory from the Spanish as a part of a concession three years earlier, for
about 3¢ an acre which instantly doubled the land area of the United States. 
He immediately dispatched Lewis and Clark to survey this new territory, and to
find a route to the Pacific Ocean.  In May of 1804, Lewis and Clark
embarked on their journey from Missouri.  To commemorate this expedition,
and most likely in an effort to bolster the sales of the failing Sacagawea
Dollar, the U.S. Mint decided to issue a special two year commemorative issue of
the Jefferson nickel.  In each of the years 2004 and 2005, there would be
two different designs issued.

Beginning in 2004, the first two issues were
released.  These were: the Peace Medal reverse, designed by Norman
E. Nemeth; and, the Keelboat reverse, designed by Al Maletsky.  In
2005, a design change was made to the portrait of Thomas Jefferson in addition
to two new reverse designs.  Jefferson's effigy is shown as a close-up
profile with the word LIBERTY written in cursive lettering.  This new
obverse was the conception of Joe Fitzgerald and Don Everhart.  The two new
reverse designs for 2005 were: the American Bison reverse designed by
Jamie Franki and Norman E. Nemeth, and the Ocean in View reverse,
designed by Joe Fitzgerald and Donna Weaver.

For the year 2006, the U.S. Mint has named the
nickel a Return to Monticello.  Once again the obverse has be
redesigned, and the portrait of Thomas Jefferson is displayed as a 3/4 full face
bust of the President, designed by Jamie Franki and Donna Weaver.  The
reverse of the coin is a return to the basic original design of Felix Schlag
however; the Monticello mansion has been given a face lift with quality
detailing that was missing from the original.

Other then the Jefferson Nickels struck on the
wrong blanks as mentioned in this article previously, amassing a collection of
Jefferson nickels is not particularly difficult.  The "key dates" in the
series are: the 1938-D, 1938-S, 1939-D, 1939-S and the 1950-D.  Also,
Jefferson nickels which display "full steps" on the reverse, are of particular
interest to collectors, and sell for premiums.  For those collectors who
wish to expand their collections to include some of the more difficult, and more
expensive coins in the series, look for the overmintmarks such as: the 1949-D/S,
1954-S/D, 1955-D/S, and the overdate of the 1943/2-P.  There are also three
double dies occurring in this series the 1939, 1945 and 2004.  The
rarest of all the Jefferson nickels is the 1942-S with the reverse of the 1941. 
This unique coin (1 known) was actually found in a group of circulated coins in
1961.  Who knows, maybe one of you have one in your collection, and you may
not even know it.  Is it time for you to get your collection out and
examine it again?

Related Articles
Editor's Picks Articles
Top Ten Articles
Previous Features
Site Map

Content copyright © 2023 by Raymond F. Hanisco. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Raymond F. Hanisco. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Gary Eggleston for details.