Nickel five cent pieces have been produced since 1866 and from the beginning the denomination has been a mainstay in commerce. Though obviously the purchasing power has declined, and in recent times the prices of copper and nickel have often pushed the metal value of the coin past the face value, the nickel has with few exceptions managed to escape the recriminations of those who also feel the cent is obsolete. ‘Penny’ cups are common at convenience store cash registers, but rarely is a nickel seen in one. The Indian Head or Buffalo nickel had been minted since 1913, long enough since introduction that the statutory 25-year requirement for keeping the same design on a coin had been met. In 1938 the Treasury Department initiated a public competition for a new five cent coin design, stipulating that the obverse bear a portrait of the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, and the reverse a depiction of Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home. The year chosen for the introduction of the new issue had no obvious connection to anniversary events in Jefferson’s life, but the change followed the trend of placing U.S. presidents on circulating coinage that started with Abraham Lincoln on the cent in 1909.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
The open competition was won by Felix Schlag, who received a $1,000 price for his efforts. Schlag’s Jefferson was based on a marble bust by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, noted for his likenesses of other U.S. and world notables, and his reverse featured a unique oblique view of Monticello edged by a few trees. However, 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.
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. In 2004 and 2005 the reverse of the nickel was modified to mark the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Also in 2005 was a modified, close portrait of Jefferson, 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 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). 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.
Thousands of business strike Jefferson nickels have been certified, and the 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 AU58 or finer, MS63 and finer from the early 1960s forward. Prices are modest for most dates to MS65, and for many dates to MS67. Higher prices pieces include 1939 Doubled Monticello; 1942-D, D Over Horizontal D; 1943-P Doubled Die Obverse; 1945-P Doubled Die Reverse; 1946-D, D Over D; 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 PR67, and to PR69 for nickels minted from the early 1960s forward. More expensive coins are the Cameo and Deep Cameo pieces, some very expensive finer than PR65, and the 1971 No S variety, which is expensive in most grades, very expensive as PR69 and finer. Most dates from the late 1970s forward are available as PR70 and are moderately priced, except for issues from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.
Designer: Felix Schlag
Circulation Mintage: high 1,787,297,160 (1964-D), low 2,630,030 (1950-D)
Proof Mintage: high 4,149,730 (1976-S), low 12,535 (1939)
Denomination: Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: 21.2 mm, plain edge
Metal Content: 75% copper, 25% nickel, 1938-1942 (part) and 1946-1983; 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese 1942 (part) -1945
Weight: 5 grams
Varieties: Many known including 1939 Doubled MONTICELLO and FIVE CENTS; 1942-D Over Horizontal D; 1943-P, 3 Over 2; 1943-P Doubled Eye; 1945-P Doubled Die Reverse; 1949-D, D Over S; 1954-S, S Over D; 1955-D, D Over S; 1971 proof, No S; 1979-S, Filled and Clear S; 1994-P and 1997-P Special Uncirculated; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.