Excerpts from the E-Sylum: Ethnic Slurs on Hobo Nickels

Each week, CoinWeek, in collaboration with the Numismatic Bibliomania Society, brings you a highlighted feature from the current volume of the E-Sylum eNewsletter.

This week, E-sylum readers chime in on an unfortunate but important area of American numismatics, the use of racial and ethnic slurs on Hobo Nickels…

… Regarding the Hobo Nickel “I VILL” forwarded by Larry Dziubek a few weeks ago, Bob Leonard writes:

ivill1I.VILL has nothing to do with a marriage proposal: it pokes fun at Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who pronounced “W” as “V.” The figure represents a “sheeny,” a Jewish man with a hook nose wearing a derby hat; he is no “hobo.”

The ethnic slur nature of the original “hobo nickels” has been swept under the rug by modern collectors, but it is established by the existence of pot metal tokens imitating this design on the obverse, with the pawnbroker’s three balls on the reverse.

I wasn’t aware of this connection; interesting. Does anyone have a compilation of “sheeny” Hobo nickel carvings for comparison? I contacted Ralph Winter of the Original Hobo Nickel Society for more information. His response is below, along with excerpts from articles in their publication. -Editor

Several of us involved with OHNS have privately discussed the history of some hobo nickels that were clearly created with an ethic slur as part of the design or legend. We really haven’t discussed this in print. In authenticating or grading old hobo nickels, we often refer to an exaggerated nose as an “ethnic nose.”

I have attached two articles printed in BoTales, the quarterly publication of OHNS. The first entitled “Kosher Carvings” was written by our OHNS late webmaster and secretary Verne Walrafen. It appeared in the summer 2010 issue of BoTales.

In the spring of 2012 Verne unexpectedly passed away or as we refer to it, he caught the westbound. Then later in 2012 I received a letter from OHNS member Ira Rezak which I published in the fall 2012 issue of BoTales.

The article and letter are too long to reprint here. Verne’s article discusses nickel carvings with Hebrew legends. Below are to images from the article. The one on the left translates to “Kosher”. On the one on the right, the Hebrew translates to “Liberty”. -Editor


Here’s an excerpt from Ira Rezak’s letter. -Editor

The Hebrew seems to me to be a slight misspelling (חירות instead of the proper חרות) of the word for “liberty”, which of course is merely a translation of the very word that had originally occupied this area, albeit in English.

The meaning of “Ich Gebible” is much discussed in dictionaries of regional English but is actually not to be found as such in Yiddish dictionaries. The internet is rich in discussions of what this expression might mean, but two things are very clear: its usage dates back to about 1913 (the preserved underdate on this nickel), and it was the stage name of Merwyn Bogue, a non-Jewish comedian, popular on radio in the 1930s and 1940’s who used the expression in a nonsensical kind of way as part of his routine. Both of these facts are well attested.

While there is much speculation on-line about what Yiddish expression might have led to the invention and wide use of this obviously humorous expression (one such idea is that it might have derived from the Yiddish for “what me worry”), the more probable explanation is that it was simply a silly sounding phrase use in many contexts when mockery of foreign accents in public comedy was widely accepted ( eg. Amos n’ Andy, Sid Caesar) and was not yet considered politically incorrect.

Finally, I attach separately a picture of a Hobo nickel featuring the name ”ICH KA BIBBLE” in my own collection that was purchased from Richard Rossa in 1975. I don’t know very much about Hobo Nickel portraiture but, as a member of the OHNS for the past few years, it seems safe for me to say that the sharp nose and piercing eye, the pointed beard, the tooth-bearing open mouth, and the lack of any ear definition at all, if also the presence of a pipe, make this specimen atypical of the more usual forms of carving.

Click here to read the rest of this week’s issue of the E-Sylum eNewsletter.

Click Here to read PART TWO of this article here on CoinWeek

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