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HomeUS CoinsBuffalo Nickel, Type 1 (1913) | CoinWeek

Buffalo Nickel, Type 1 (1913) | CoinWeek

1913 Buffalo Nickel, Type I. Image: David Lawrene Rare Coins.
1913 Buffalo Nickel, Type I. Image: David Lawrene Rare Coins.

The Type 1 Buffalo Nickel surplanted the Liberty Head nickel design of Charles E. Barber that had been on the chopping block ever since President Teddy Roosevelt had teamed up with sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to carry out their “pet crime” to beautify all of American coinage.

By 1908, the “V-nickel” had reached the statutorily-required minimum date for a design change, which Congress had set at 25 years with the passage of the Mint Act of September 26, 1890. Barber, who had served the United States Mint as its Chief Engraver, had seen his influence over American coin design wane since taking the position in 1879. While Barber’s designs dominated American minor coinage of the late 19th century, it was the work of outside artists Victor David Brenner, Bela Lyon Pratt, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens that would be responsible for the renaissance of American coin design in the early 20th century.

Barber saw the opportunity to remake the nickel and worked on a series of designs in 1909-1910. Unfortunately, Barber’s vision for a new nickel design depicting President George Washington in military attire was amateurish at best. Efforts to redesign the nickel continued into 1911, but Treasury Department officials seemed to be interested in honoring President Abraham Lincoln on the new design. Lincoln was an odd choice, as the Lincoln cent had already debuted two years earlier.

Sculptor James Earle Fraser Enters the Picture

It was through the process of contemplating a Lincoln nickel that sculptor James Earle Fraser became attached to the redesign. Formerly an assistant to Saint-Gaudens himself, Fraser was a talented artist just coming into his own at the time he became involved with coin design.

In a June 13, 1911 letter to Mint Director George E. Roberts, Fraser wrote:

I think your idea of the Lincoln head is a splendid one and I shall be very glad to make you some sketches as soon as possible and let you see them. I think they should be reduced to the actual size of the coin; otherwise we will not be really able to judge them, even in the sketch period. I will have that done here, where I can watch the process.

James Earle Fraser Nickel Pattern Electrotype. Image: Heritage Auctions.
James Earle Fraser Nickel Pattern Electrotype. Image: Heritage Auctions.

In July, Fraser sent Roberts electro plate “sketches” of his design concepts. The Treasury, after reviewing Fraser’s preliminary work, cooled on the idea of the Lincoln design and began to agitate for a design competition. Fraser advised against opening up the redesign process to an outside competition, figuring that the Treasury would compromise on its design goals for the sake of fairness.

The Treasury heeded Fraser’s advice and allowed the artist to proceed, but this time on a design that featured a Native American figure and an American buffalo on the reverse. Fraser worked on the design that would become the 1913 Type 1 Buffalo Nickel over the course of the summer and fall of 1911. Further refinements to the design were made in 1912, this time with the input of Charles Barber, who was once again assigned to adapt outside art to the purposes of a viable production coinage.

In July 1912, it seemed that the new nickel design was well on its way to being adopted, when agitation from the vending machine industry threatened to derail the process. At the time, the nickel was the modest widely used coin in these machines. One vending machine businessman, Clarence W. Hobbs, launched a prolonged pressure campaign to halt the planned design change. Hobbs was a devoted soldier for maintaining the status quo.

As the late numismatist David W. Lange laid out in his excellent book, The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels, Hobbs’ efforts included a letter-writing campaign, threatened legal action, and in-person appeals. Ultimately, both the Mint and the Treasury Department were not persuaded to abandon the redesign, and on February 17, 1913, the first Buffalo Nickels were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. That same year, Fraser married his former pupil, sculptress Laura Gardin Fraser.

Nickel Joins Other Coins Celebrating Native American Heritage

Indian motifs on United States coinage date back to the mid-19th century with the release of the Indian Head cent and the Indian Princess Head gold dollar and gold three dollar coins of Mint Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre. These designs, as well as the Saint-Gaudens gold eagle design of 1907, portrayed Liberty wearing an Indian headdress. It was not until Bela Lyon Pratt’s quarter eagle and half eagle designs of 1908 that a realistic depiction of a Native American figure would appear on a United States coin.

Fraser’s design, like Pratt’s, portrays a realistic Native American male figure. For his portrait, Fraser claimed it was a composite of three Indian chiefs who had posed for him years earlier. The buffalo or bison on the coin’s reverse is believed to be based on Black Diamond, an animal housed at New York City’s Central Park Menagerie in 1911, when Fraser created the design.

First Buffalo Nickels Released to VIPs

On March 4, 1913, coins from the first bag to go into circulation were presented to outgoing President William H. Taft and 33 Indian chiefs at the groundbreaking ceremonies for the National Memorial to the North American Indian at Fort Wadsworth, New York. At the same time, the coins were also released into circulation. The new nickels were produced for circulation at the Philadelphia Mint, where Proofs were also made, as well as at the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco. The Philadelphia Mint struck 30,992,000 coins of the type, whereas Denver produced 5,337,000, and San Francisco only 2,105,000.

Wear Immediately Apparent

Type 1 Buffalo Nickels were minted only in the first few months of 1913. Coins of this type featured textured fields and a raised mound, on which the coin’s denomination–spelled out as FIVE CENTS–was inscribed in relief. As early as April, rapid wear in this area became evident on the coins in circulation. Nitpicker Clarence W. Hobbs had predicted this in a January 1913 letter, wherein he wrote:

The token of value upon the one side and the date line upon the other, in addition to being difficult to distinguish, is placed too close to the surface of the coin and are only .003 of an inch in depth, whereas the depth of these characters on the standard coin is 007. Consequently, when the coin has received 3/7 of the wear which the standard coin is capable of taking, the token of value will have been entirely worn away and the coin will cease to be a legal tender.

The Mint was swift to act, and ordered Barber to make the necessary changes. Barber, not wanting a repeat of the 1883 Liberty Head nickel fiasco, cut away the mound, creating an exergue into which the denomination was set. This solved the reverse wear problem, but Barber kept going. He smoothed out much of the detail and granularity in both the Indian’s portrait and the bison’s hide. As he had done with the Saint-Gaudens double eagle design six years previously, Barber had sucked out much of the outside artist’s original vision with his modifications.

Design

Obverse:

A realistic portrait of a mature Native American male faces to the right and is slightly offset to the left. The figure wears two feathers in his hair, fixed in a braid over his right ear. The date is raised and position on the shoulder. An incuse letter F for Fraser’s last name appears below the final numeral of the date. In the field, to the right of the figure’s forehead and nose, wrapping inside of the rim, is the inscription LIBERTY.

Reverse:

A full figure of an American buffalo faces to the left. The animal is depicted standing on the ground. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM are artfully placed over the buffalo, with the denomination FIVE CENTS below.

Edge:

The edge of the Type 1 1913 Buffalo Nickel is plain or smooth, without reeding or lettering.

Coin Specifications

Buffalo Nickel, Type 1
Years Of Issue: 1913
Mintage: High: 30,992,000 (1913); Low: 2,105,000 (1913-S)
Mintage (Proof) 1,520
Alloy: 75% copper, 25% nickel
Weight: 5.0 g
Diameter: 21.2 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer: James Earle Fraser
REV Designer: James Earle Fraser

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of United States Coins. Doubleday.

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. You know you hear and see so much stuff you don’t know who to believe and if you don’t have a lot of knowledge or education like me it’s rough thanks

  2. Once again, ****** buffalo nickels are no strangers!! For instance, I have one dated 1919 (doubled 19!!!!!!!!) For coins’ $ake!!!

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