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HomeUS CoinsJefferson Nickel, 1938-2003 : A Collector's Guide

Jefferson Nickel, 1938-2003 : A Collector’s Guide

1964-D Jefferson nickel. Image: CoinWeek.
1964-D nickel. Image: CoinWeek.

What Is the Jefferson Nickel?

The Jefferson nickel is a five-cent coin made out of nickel-copper alloy that entered into production in 1938. The design replaced the popular Buffalo nickel type, which was discontinued after 25 years of service. In 1937, the United States Mint held a design contest and invited artists from around the country to contribute their designs for a new nickel that would commemorate Founding Father and Third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson. German émigré and American artist Felix Oscar Schlag was the winner. He received $1,000 for his effort.

Jefferson nickel coin designer Felix Schlag.
Jefferson nickel coin designer Felix Schlag.

Schlag’s obverse design, which art scholar Cornelius Vermeule noted was similar to Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1789 bust of Jefferson, was the face of the nickel for 66 years.

The nickel’s reverse features a depiction of Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Schlag’s original reverse concept, however–featuring an oblique view of the site edged by a few trees. But the Federal Commission of Fine Arts, an advisory body for issues related to public art, instead recommended a more conventional elevation view of the home, along with other changes to the font style. Schlag completed the requested changes in July 1938, and coinage of the new nickel began in September.

Schlag’s revised Monticello reverse remains in service to this day.

The War Nickel Years (1942-1945)

1944-P nickel. Image: CoinWeek / Heritage Auctions.
1944-P nickel. Image: CoinWeek / Heritage Auctions.

During World War II, the status of nickel metal as a strategic war material resulted in nickels being minted with a copper, manganese, and silver composition, the first time silver had been used in a five-cent piece since the last half dime was minted in 1873. The Mint marked these emergency-issue nickels with enlarged mintmarks that were placed above the dome. CoinWeek has published a separate guide for this Jefferson nickel subtype.

Recent Changes to the Nickel’s Design

In 2004 and 2005, the reverse of the nickel was modified to mark the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Also in 2005, a modified, close portrait of Jefferson made its debut on the obverse, and in 2006, the Monticello reverse was restored but with a new facing portrait of the president. Though nickels from 2004 to date are included in the Jefferson nickel type, the number of design modifications can be considered sufficient to identify these most recent coins as a separate type.

The Future of the Nickel

Nickel five-cent pieces have been produced since 1866 and from the beginning the denomination has been a mainstay in commerce. With the passage of time, the purchasing power of the nickel has declined. The cost to the produce now surpasses the coin’s face value. In the United States Mint’s 2023 Annual Report, the cost to produce the nickel is now at 11.54 cents each (the penny is a loser too, at 3.07 cents cost for each one cent coin struck).

In recent years, Congress and the Treasury Department have entertained the possibility of changing the composition of the nickel to cut costs, but the potential downsides of such a move have outweighed the potential benefits.

Jefferson Nickel Varieties

Over the course of the Jefferson nickel series, many collectible varieties are known, including the 1939 Doubled Die Reverse; the 1942-D Over Horizontal D; the 1949-D, D Over S; the 1954-S, S Over D; the 1955-D, D Over S; the 1971 Proof, No S; the 1979-S, Filled and Clear S; the 1994-P and 1997-P Special Uncirculated; and other minor die varieties.

Jefferson Nickels in the Certified Coin Market

Thousands of business strike coins have been certified, and this count includes many Prooflike pieces and examples with a Full Steps designation (referring to the visibility of the steps on Monticello, designated as either Five Full Steps or Six Full Steps). Most examples are certified as AU-58 or finer, MS-63 and finer from the early 1960s forward. Prices are modest for most dates to MS-65, and for many dates to MS-67. Higher prices pieces include the 1939 Doubled Monticello; the 1942-D, D Over Horizontal D; the 1943-P Doubled Die Obverse; the 1945-P Doubled Die Reverse; the 1946-D, D Over D; the 1964 Special Mint Set pieces (particularly Cameo examples); and Full Step coins, particularly for varieties and those graded MS66 and finer.

Tens of thousands of Proof Jefferson nickels have been certified, many as Cameo or Deep Cameo (particularly from the late 1960s forward) and most as PR66 and finer, also from the late 1960s forward. Prices are moderate for most dates to PR-67, and to PR-69 for nickels minted from the early 1960s forward. More expensive coins are the Cameo and Deep Cameo pieces, some very expensive finer than PR-65, and the 1971 No S variety, which is expensive in most grades, very expensive as PR-69 and finer. Most dates from the late 1970s forward are available as PR-70 and are moderately priced, except for issues from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s.

In-Depth Jefferson Nickel Date Analysis by CoinWeek Notes

1964 nickel. Image: CoinWeek.
1964 Jefferson nickel. Image: CoinWeek.

Design

Obverse:

The obverse displays a left-facing portrait of Jefferson, who wears a coat and a wig representative of the period. Inside a flat rim is IN GOD WE TRUST to the left of the portrait, and LIBERTY and the date to the right, the last two separated by a small centered five-point star. Starting in 1966, Schlag’s initials FS were added to the lower right, below the truncation of the portrait. From 1968 forward, Denver (D) and San Francisco (S), and from 1980 forward, Philadelphia (P) mintmarks are located at the lower right, after the last digit of the date (but oriented horizontally).

Reverse:

The reverse displays an elevation view of the front of Monticello, with MONTICELLO labeled below. Around the smooth rim are E PLURIBUS UNUM at the top and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the bottom; FIVE CENTS in smaller letters forms a concentric arc above STATES OF and below MONTICELLO. Denver (D) and San Francisco (S) mintmarks are located to the right of the building from 1938 through 1964. In the latter part of 1942, and in 1943, 1944, and 1945, D, S, and P (for Philadelphia, the first appearance of a mintmark for that mint on a U.S. coin) were placed on the reverse, above the building, to indicate the changed metal content. Nickels minted in 1965, 1966, and 1967 have no mintmarks, and since 1971 San Francisco has minted only Proof nickels.

Edge:

The edge of the nickel is plain or smooth, without reeding or edge lettering.

Designer

Felix Schlag was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1891. After receiving an education at the Munich University of Fine Arts, he moved to the United States in 1929. Schlag died in 1974. Yet while he did win numerous art contests and commissions throughout much of the remainder of his life, the Jefferson Nickel was his only coin design.

Coin Specifications

Jefferson Nickel
Years Of Issue: 1938-2003
Mintage (Circulation): High: 1,787,297,160 (1964-D); Low: 2,630,030 (1950-D)
Mintage (Proof): High: 4,149,730 (1976-S); Low: 12,535 (1939)
Alloy: 75% copper, 25% nickel (1938-1942 and 1946-2003); 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese (1942-1945)
Weight: 5.00 g
Diameter: 21.20 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer Felix Schlag
REV Designer Felix Schlag

 

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References

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

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

–. The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Whitman Publishing.

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

Yeoman, R.S and Kenneth Bressett (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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5 COMMENTS

  1. OUR JEFFERSON NICKEL

    The Buffalo/Jefferson Official Red Book is where I came across one of Americas Greatest Designers, Felix Oscar Schlag .

    His Life Story unfolds:

    A German immigrant that came to America in search for work/job during the depression.Felix’s determination paid-off as he won this competition of our new nickel in April of 1938′.

    The US-Mint however’ kept sending back his design, requiring changing the reverse-side.

    Frustrating as that may of been, another personal issue faced Felix,(In the Buffalo/Jefferson Red-Book) while working- creating his design. I would think all of this would have been very stressful for him during this time.

    In my opinion, had Felix known about it beforehand, I doubt very much we would even have his design in our coinage today.

    -Diversity:
    Mintstate, Variety, Proofs,PrfLike, Full-Step,Silver Wartime Era,Rpm and Errors.

    Upon my Retirement in the Spring of 2008,I was wondering if it was possible to reach the Top 10 in this catagory. Don’t let the(no-prices/no-points) on over half of my coins fool you, most of
    my collection’ are low-mintage and very hard to find!

    An’Now, being able to reach this goal I feel I have achieved something that has been not only enjoyable,but also giving me historical knowledge. Your welcome to view the Journals that I
    put together as well. Have a question, leave a message.

    So Yes! Anyone who wants alot of fun and learning experience in this series, this is it!

    Jims Jefferson Collection-
    NGC Registry/1938 to Date/Circulation Issues.

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