1888, an important year for American numismatics, saw the first publication of a small four-page pamphlet by Dr. George F. Heath. Originally called The American Numismatist, Heath’s small magazine would grow to be what we know now as The Numismatist. While Heath estimated that there were only 20,000 coin collectors in America at the time, the United States Mint was mainly focused on striking coinage for the economy. Due to the production of Morgan silver dollars in 1888, the Philadelphia Mint was only able to strike a limited issuance of small change coinage. This necessitated the San Francisco Mint to take up the slack, specifically in striking unusually large numbers of quarters. That being said, except for during 1912, all Liberty Head nickels were struck by the Philadelphia Mint.
Perhaps due to overwork, quality control and die maintenance in Philadelphia suffered in the last few years of the decade. By 1888, it was common for nickels to not only display weak strikes but also numerous die cracks and extensive pitting or die rust. Most notably, the lower portion of the agricultural wreath on the reverse suffered from weakness, with the left-hand ear of corn often displaying little to no detail.
In terms of scarcity, the 1888 Liberty nickel cannot be considered a middling type. When the standard rate of wear and circulation is combined with the overall poor strike quality and die rust, very few examples can be considered to be in truly Gem condition. Therefore, even with the ninth-smallest mintage out of 32 issuances, it is a relatively popular date. That being said, there are nice examples out there and collectors should take their time searching for a problem-free coin.
Variety collectors should note that there are five distinct known varieties for the 1888. There are three doubled-die obverse types, two of which also have re-punched dates. Another type has only a re-punched date, and there is also a final doubled-die reverse type.
The 1888 Liberty Head Nickel in Today’s Market
As a semi-scarce type, even with an average rarity score of only R-2.7, this coin commands a relatively large premium over more common issuances.
For example, at $50 to $75 USD in circulated condition (VF 20 to VF 30), the 1888 is worth one-and-a-half or two times that of a comparable 1889 nickel. Furthermore, other more common dates, like the 1907 and the 1911, sell for $1 to $2 at most local coin stores in the same grade.
This premium continues to hold for examples verging on Mint State, with the 1888 selling for upwards of $200 to $250 in AU 58, while more common dates (like the 1890) regularly fetch $100.
However, as with other conditional rarities, the true value of the 1888 Liberty Head nickel rests in Mint State examples. While 70.8% of the total certified population is considered MS 60 or above, this is almost certainly disproportionate to the overall surviving population and includes a number of resubmissions. When they come to auction (only two or three times per year), top-grade examples (MS 66 and MS 66+) consistently sell for between $2,000 and $3,000. This price has crept up continuously over the years, with similarly graded coins selling for just under $2,000 in 2004 and $900 in 2000.
The Liberty Head nickel was designed by Charles E. Barber, who is the namesake behind the Barber (officially “Liberty Head”) dime, quarter, and half dollar; some hobbyists have similarly dubbed the Liberty Head nickel as the “Barber” nickel, though this is not common practice. The Liberty Head nickel features a leftward-facing bust of Miss Liberty, whose hair is tied into a bun behind her head. She is crowned with a tiara bearing the inscription “LIBERTY.”
Thirteen stars, representing the 13 original states of the Union, mostly encircle the bust along the obverse rim. At the bottom center of the obverse is the coin’s date (1888).
While the Liberty Head nickel may only infrequently be identified as the “Barber” nickel by hobbyists, the coins do have one widely popular nickname: the “V” nickel. The “V” refers to the large Roman numeral “V” that anchors the reverse design and indicates the coin’s denomination of five cents. The “V” sits within a wreath of cotton, corn, wheat, and tobacco – important crops representative of different parts of the country. Centered under the wreath is the inscription CENTS, which was added to the design in late 1883 to ensure that the coin could not be plated gold and misrepresented as a five-dollar gold piece.
On either side of the word CENTS is a single dot, which divides the denomination inscription from the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which wraps around the top three-quarters of the reverse along the rim. Near the top center of the coin, under the words STATES OF, is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM (“Out of Many, One”). Since the coin was struck in Philadelphia, there is no mintmark.
The edge of the 1888 Liberty Head nickel cent is smooth or, without reeding or edge lettering.
Charles Edward Barber was born in London in 1840. He was the son of William Barber, the fifth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, under whom he worked as an assistant engraver. Upon his father’s death in 1879, Charles Barber became the Mint’s sixth Chief Engraver. The coins he designed during his tenure are collectively known as “Barber coinage” and include the dime, the quarter, and the half dollar. His Liberty “V” nickel is also well-known, as is his supposed feud with engraver George T. Morgan.
|Year Of Issue:||1888|
|Denomination:||Five Cents (USD)|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|Alloy:||75% Copper; 25% Nickel|
|OBV Designer||Charles E. Barber|
|REV Designer||Charles E. Barber|
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Bowers, Q. David. A Guidebook of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels: Complete Source For History, Grading, and Prices. Whitman Publishing (2006)