By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com ……
I’ve been picking through nickel rolls for years.
I searched through my first roll of nickels in 1993, when I was 12 years old and first getting into coin collecting. I remember finding one or two pre-1960 Jefferson nickels in almost every roll back in those days, but I didn’t find my first wartime nickel, a Jefferson nickel made between 1942 and 1945 and containing a 35% silver composition, until some 15 years later. It was a 1943-P nickel in Fine condition that I found in jukebox change from a Johnny Rockets retro diner – a fitting location for such a mid-century coin find.
I’ve picked through nickel rolls here and there over the years, but never more than five, perhaps 10, at a time. My best roll finds were another well-circulated war nickel and a multitude of common-date pieces from the 1940s and ’50s, with an occasional 1939 Philadelphia Mint specimen popping up from time to time. So recently I decided to search through a $100 box of nickels, which contains 50 rolls of 40 nickels each. I had hopes that, maybe – finally – I’d make some really good finds. Perhaps I’d stumble on one or two more war nickels, maybe find a 1939-D or 1950-D nickel, or maybe even score my first roll-find Buffalo nickel.
I was admittedly enthusiastic about venturing through a box of nickels after having found a very well-worn 1903 Liberty Head nickel in change from McDonald’s a few weeks earlier, representing my oldest circulation find to date. Interestingly, it was at the same location where in 1995 I found the coin that tied for my previous-oldest circulation find: a 1919 Lincoln cent. I thought there might be some good coin vibes flowing around there, and it works out well that my bank is just next door. I’m lovin’ that!
I called the bank to order a box of nickels, and within a week my rolls were ready for pickup. I walked in, confident I’d be walking out with something spectacular. I got home, placed the box on my dining room table, and went to town.
What Did I Find in My Nickel Rolls?
Things got exciting when, on my first roll, I uncovered a 1947 Jefferson nickel. “Surely that’s just the start of things,” I quietly assured myself.
Then, roll after roll started coming up dry. No pre-1960 Jeffersons. No Buffalos. Finally, around the 10th roll, I came across two pre-1960 Jefferson nickels – both common dates from the ’40s and ’50s. But otherwise there was nothing of note rolling on to my table.
Among all 50 rolls, I made the following pre-1960 finds:
Let me tell you, according to this single box of nickels, it wasn’t 1993 anymore. I ultimately found a lower frequency of pre-1960 Jefferson nickels than I experienced in the mid-1990s. Just 19 of the coins dated prior to 1960, and none were from the ’30s. Nor were there any war nickels. Or Buffalo nickels.
Perhaps the most valuable find of the night? A CR 2032 watch battery, which sells for about $3 new at the grocery store. There were also about 20 Brilliant Uncirculated Jefferson nickels dated prior to 2001, an arbitrary cutoff date I set for myself in regards to which Uncirculated nickels I kept.
A 1984 Canadian nickel also popped up.
I kept a tally of all Jefferson nickels I found ranging in date from 1960 through 1969. These 1960s nickels aren’t necessarily scarce in the numismatic sense (yet), and I still don’t go out of my way to keep them. Nevertheless, they seem to be turning up with less regularity these days, probably in large part due to attrition from decades of heavy circulation.
Combining in one total all mint marks for each given year, here’s what I found for 1960s Jefferson nickels:
If you’re following along at home, you’ll realize that only 96 nickels out of 2,000 were dated from the 1960s, representing just 4.8 percent of the entire box. The total percentage of all nickels in this box dating before 1970 is only 5.75 percent. Again, I’m talking about pre-1970 nickels, not just pre-1960 nickels. So maybe we collectors should expand our horizons on the range of nickels we pull out of circulation. Perhaps, in a decade or so, all nickels from the 1960s will be more desirable to the average collector.
On that note, I found three 1970s nickels worn below a grade of Fine. These stood out to me during the roll search because even in overall color, these three coins from the ’70s looked every bit like nickels from the ’40s and ’50s.
I have to say, I felt significantly older for a moment.
Coming off my momentary lapse into premature sexagenarianism, I returned to my search for anything of note in this comparatively unexciting box of nickels. I soon realized my most exciting keepers weren’t neighbors from the Great White North, well-worn pieces dated before 1960 (or 1970), or even anything that had the ability to power my Swatch Watch.
My most stirring finds of the evening? Two 2009-dated Jefferson nickels. 2009 is a date that has proven elusive in circulation for many collectors.
Why Are 2009 Nickels So Scarce?
Only 39,840,000 business-strikes were made at the Philadelphia Mint in 2009 and 46,800,000 were struck at the Denver Mint that same year. Adding those figures together, along with the 2,179,867 proofs that rolled out of the San Francisco Mint, and the overall mintage for the 2009 nickel looks more like something one might expect from the 1950s. In fact, the last time the Philadelphia Mint had struck fewer than 39.8 million business-strike nickels was 50 years earlier in 1959, when it produced 27,248,000 pieces. The last time the Denver Mint had made fewer than 46.8 million nickels was in 1952, when the facility eked out a relatively anemic 30,638,000 nickels (mintages pulled from the 2017 Red Book).
The Great Recession, which technically lasted from December 2007 through June 2009, dampened the need for circulating coinage in the United States. But the recession didn’t just affect the production of business-strike nickels. Also seeing significantly lower mintages in 2009 were the other two higher-denomination, widely circulating coins: dimes and quarters. The Philadelphia Mint struck a mere 96.5 million dimes and a cumulative 300.6 million quarters across all six District of Columbia and Territories designs, and the Denver Mint contributed just 49.5 million dimes and only 335.6 million quarters. In all cases, these were the lowest business-strike, year-over-year mintage figures for dimes and quarters in two generations.
And that helps to explain why the two 2009 Jefferson nickels I encountered during my roll search were the first I’ve seen!
Summing Up My Search
Having just searched through a similarly disappointing box of half dollars a few weeks earlier, I was ready to throw in the roll-searching towel after this rather dull box of nickels. Then I remembered that this is merely one of thousands upon thousands of boxes of nickels out there waiting to be searched through.
I recently made my first Liberty nickel find during a simply transaction at McDonalds, and I’ve found a Buffalo nickel and a war nickel in regular pocket change, too. Why not take another look and see what the next box of nickels lends?
As coin collectors, we learn that much of the enjoyment of this hobby isn’t found simply in acquiring the coins we want – it’s in looking for the coins we want. The thrill of the hunt is what keeps many of us going. That’s the case whether we’re searching for old Jefferson nickels, problem-free Seated Liberty dollars, or copper-nickel clad business-strike Eisenhower dollars grading Mint State-67 (which is definitely harder to find than you may think!).
At the end of the day, I’m walking away from this box with a few new Jefferson nickels for my slowly growing accumulation of scarce circulation finds. I’m pumped to tackle some more nickel rolls soon. Besides, I’ve got a 1938-61 Jefferson nickel Whitman folder with a few holes to fill…
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For more roll searching adventures with Josh, check out his earlier entries in the series:
2009 Jefferson Nickels Currently Available on eBay