The Liberty Head nickel, sometimes referred to as the V nickel due to its reverse design, was an American nickel five-cent piece. Officially, it was minted from 1883 to 1912; a few patterns were struck in 1881 and 1882, and five pieces were surreptitiously struck in 1913, which today number among America’s most fabled numismatic rarities. The Liberty Head nickel’s composition was the same as that of other U.S. five-cent nickels: 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel.
In 1881, Mint Superintendent James Ross Snowden decided to unify the designs of the cent, three-cent nickel, and five-cent nickel. Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber created Liberty Head designs for all three denominations, and patterns were struck later that year. However, Snowden was unable to implement his desired design alterations for the cent and three-cent nickel, so only the five-cent nickel design ever saw full production.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
In early 1883, the Liberty Head nickel was first struck for circulation. The first 5.4 million pieces struck contained the Roman numeral V on the reverse, but did not contain the word “CENTS”. Con artists quickly noted this, as well as the fact that the coin was roughly the same size as a five-dollar gold coin, and began gold-plating the new nickels and attempting to pass them as gold pieces.
According to numismatic legend, one of the perpetrators of this fraud was a deaf-mute named Josh Tatum, whose name is allegedly the origin of the verb “joshing”. Supposedly, Tatum was not convicted because, being unable to speak, he did not actually make any fraudulent verbal claims regarding the coins, but merely accepted the change handed to him by the storekeeper . This tale, however, may be apocryphal . Whatever the truth of the case, what is known is that the Mint decided to add the word “CENTS” to the reverse design of the Liberty Head nickel in the middle of the 1883 striking , and this change remained until the coin was discontinued.
Designer: Charles E. Barber
Mintage: Circulation strikes: 5,474,300 Proofs: 5,219
Diameter: 21.2 millimeters
Metal content: Copper – 75% Nickel – 25%
Weight: 5 grams