The Shield nickel is not presently a hot area of the U.S. market. Has it ever been? Every coin has its time. If you had been around in 1882, you might have felt that Shield nickels were actually very interesting and potentially a good collectible.
First introduced in 1866, Shield nickels were still a relatively new coin in 1882. Until 1873, the copper-nickel coin was (at least in theory) in circulation with another coin of the same denomination: the 90 percent silver half dime.
On a limited budget, which of the two do you collect? That question would not have been insignificant, as the country was faced with some very difficult economic times. Also, there were relatively few collectors, most of whom added one new coin for each year and specific denomination. We see evidence of this in that some dates, especially 1870s, are oftentimes far more available as proofs. Collectors of the day would acquire these each year, allowing more business strikes to reach circulation.
The elimination of the silver half dime probably aided the budgets of the nation’s collectors, leaving only the Shield nickel. These generally had mintages in the millions for the first half of the 1870s, with the exception of the 1871 at just 561,000. (Silver half dimes were still being struck in that year, with a mintage of over 1.8 million, making for a decent five-cent production figure.)
After 1876, however, production of Shield nickels dropped off substantially. We can speculate as to the reasons. There had been some metal supply problems, with a good deal of recycling of earlier dates. Possibly the years of striking two different five-cent coins had produced a supply significantly greater than normal for commercial needs.
What we know for sure is that the Shield nickel saw proof-only production in 1877 and 1878, as well as mintages of less than 100,000 pieces until production of the 1882. After five years of low mintages, it was natural for the 1882 to have its fairly high mintage of 11,476,600. While large, however, that total was not historically unusual, as there had been higher Shield nickel mintages in 1866, 1867, 1868 and 1869.
Its still-significant mintage combines with the fact that the 1882 nickel was more heavily saved than normal. The reason for this saving was simple: a new design was coming, which debuted after a fairly small Shield nickel production in 1883. The Mint had been experimenting for some time with potential new designs, so it was a not-so-closely-guarded secret that the nickel was going to be changed.
What makes the whole matter so interesting is that the 1882 Shield nickel was not only saved – it was saved in top grades. There was no MS-65 grading back then, and it seems unlikely that many who were collecting would have looked too closely at their uncirculated 1882 nickels, but the available supply today is truly impressive.
In fact, there are many that actually grade better than MS-65, which is simply not the norm for a coin of this vintage. Superior’s 2002 pre-Long Beach sale had three 1882 Shield nickels in MS-67 and another nine in MS-65. With that dozen in such condition, the result is that some sell at extremely reasonable prices.
Today, the 1882 Shield nickel lists for $600 in MS-65 and $140 in MS-60. Collectors have an excellent opportunity to acquire an interesting coin at a truly bargain price.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2019 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.
• Order the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, General Issues to learn about circulating paper money from 14th century China to the mid 20th century.