Technically Robert E. Lee had already offered his sword to Ulysses S. Grant, but there is no real doubt that despite having the first example released after that event the Shield nickel was a product of the Civil War.
As it turned out, the Shield nickel would not only prove to be useful in an emergency, but its composition would ultimately pave the way for virtually every nickel since that time. No other coin has kept its 1866 composition, but the Shield nickels had the same composition as nickels do today and that makes their role in history that much more important.
As the Civil War began in 1861, there were no nickels or even consideration of such a coin. The five-cent coin of the day was the 90 percent silver half dime and there was no reason for change until the public began to hoard silver and gold coins.
Hoarding would not change as the way the Union army was being kicked around the battlefield gave no one, including Abraham Lincoln, any reason for confidence.
The 90 percent silver half dime had not been problem free over the years. Despite being small, if there was ever any reason for the public to hoard silver as had been done in the early 1850s, the half dime despite its size would be included in the hoarding.
In the early 1850s the discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio and suddenly the cost of producing silver issues was more than their face value. The public realized that fact and began hoarding, which caused a national coin shortage. Ultimately the Congress would take the required action, which was to slightly reduce the amount of silver, but at least for a time there had been no half dimes or silver coins of other denominations for commerce.
Simply reducing the amount of silver was not an option when the hoarding inspired by the Civil War began. The 1850s hoarding had been a result of monetary considerations, but the Civil War hoarding was inspired by fear of what would happen next and that fear cannot be calmed by simply reducing the amount of silver.
In fact, the situation went from bad to worse. Not only did silver and gold coins disappear, but even copper-nickel cents were hoarded. Making change became an adventure with people resorting to stamps, tokens and, later, Fractional Currency. No one liked the situation and a December 1863 Philadelphia Ledger article complained about the matter with copper-nickel cents when it asked, “Where are all the cents? Being depreciated below their nominal value they are not exported and considering what a nuisance their abundance was before the suspension of specie payments, and their immense coinage since, it is a great wonder where they all can be hid.”
The article reflected the sense of officials as well as they immediately began to consider what they could do to produce a cent that would not suddenly vanish right after being released. The decision was to produce bronze cents, which were followed by bronze two-cent pieces in 1864 as bronze it seemed could circulate where the copper-nickel cent could not.
The change in the composition of the cent was certainly not what a fellow named Joseph Wharton wanted to hear. Wharton at the time was perilously close to a one-man lobby for the use of nickel in coins. There was a good reason behind his concern. He happened to own the only operating nickel mine at the time and he had to be disappointed with the end of the copper-nickel cent as over the years Wharton had advocated that almost every denomination be made of copper-nickel and the cent was the one case where his efforts had been successful.
Fortunately for Wharton, he still had friends in Congress and they did not let him down, approving a copper-nickel three-cent piece that first appeared in 1865 and then on May 16, 1866, he got another present in the form of an authorization for a new copper-nickel five-cent coin.
The legislation gave the new coin a lift in terms of popularity by allowing it to replace the unpopular Fractional Currency of the same denomination. A little help was perhaps seen as needed as after all, there were still 90 percent silver half dimes even if they were not in regular circulation.
It is probably a good thing that the new Shield nickel got some help in gaining popularity in the legislation as it was certainly not helped by the design. In fact, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre had prepared interesting patterns, including one featuring George Washington, but the decision that was made was to simply modify the two-cent piece design and that pleased no one.
Over the years, there have been all sorts of critics of coin designs but the Shield nickel had the unique distinction of having its design criticized by the man who most supported the idea.
Wharton complained of the Shield nickel saying it was a “curiously ugly device,” suggesting that the obverse resembled “old-fashioned pictures of a tombstone.” Nor was he alone as the American Journal of Numismatics called the Shield nickel the “Ugliest of all known coins.”
Even with the bad reviews, the situation in terms of commerce was still desperate and the Shield nickel was quickly accepted. There was an initial 1866 mintage of 14,742,500 pieces, which is all the more impressive when you realize that half dimes were also being produced.
It does appear that at least a few examples of the 1866 Shield nickel were saved. The prices today start at $27.50 in G-4 and rise to $260 in MS-60 with an MS-65 being listed at $2,700. There was also an 1866 repunched date which is tougher.
The supply of the 1866 is not bad as even in MS-65 or better the Professional Coin Grading service reports a total of 132 coins graded.
It does, however, appear that there were problems. This was a different alloy than had been used in the cent and the design was more elaborate than had been seen in either the cent or three-cent piece.
The strikes appear to be soft and there is some indication of die trouble with the thought at the time being that the rays on the reverse required a high degree of metal flow, which was not taking place as the cavities were not being filled in properly. The logical conclusion was to eliminate the rays and that was in active discussion quickly.
Before the rays could be eliminated, the 1867 mintage began with a total of 2,019,000 being made before the order was given to halt production. The 1867 with that lower mintage and probably less saving is naturally a better date at $37.50 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $350 and an MS-65 is $4,150. We find that PCGS has seen only about 30 examples in MS-65 and up.
In addition to the business strikes there had also been proofs with rays in both 1866 and 1867. The 1866 proof is thought to have had a mintage of about 500 pieces, but there appear to be striking problems on the proofs as well, which results in a price of $3,850 for a Proof-65. Interestingly enough, PCGS has graded over 175 examples Proof-65 or better although that is just over one-half of the total seen.
In the case of the 1867 with rays proof we have one of the significant rarities from the period. In Proof-65 the 1867 with rays is priced at $75,000. The story is that there were not supposed to be any proofs as the Chief Coiner Archibald Loudon Snowden believed the design change was coming. Someone, however, decided to make a few proofs with estimates usually around 30 or 35 coins as the mintage.
Interestingly, however, NGC and PCGS have seen a combined total of 57, which suggests that the historic total of 30 or 35 might actually be too low. Moreover, with the number seen and 25 alone at PCGS grading Proof-65 or better, the current $75,000 price may well seem a little high.
The removal of the rays would see an additional 1867 mintage of nearly 28.9 million pieces, which was a very large total and the 1868 total would be similar. The large mintages make them available dates at $18 in G-4, $160 in MS-60 and $900 and $975 in MS-65, respectively.
The PCGS numbers support the low prices as even in MS-65 PCGS reports at least 70 examples of each.
The 1869, while having a lower mintage at 16,395,000, is less expensive with the same G-4 price of $18 and $160 in MS-60, but at just $775 in MS-65, making it the least expensive early date Shield nickel and what makes it even more confusing is that its MS-65 total at PCGS of 50 coins is actually slightly lower than the earlier dates.
The 1870 total would be still lower, with a total mintage of 4,806,000. While lower, it is worth noting that this was still a higher total than had historically been seen in the case of half dimes and the 1870 is still an available date with a price of $27 in G-4, while an MS-60 is $200 with an MS-65 at $2,100.
The 1871 was significantly lower as it was the first in the case of Shield nickels that had a mintage of less than 1 million at just 561,000 pieces. That makes the 1871 a better date at $70 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $375, with an MS-65 at $2,100.
The total seen by PCGS would support the price as it has seen just 25 examples in MS-65 or better. In the case of the 1871 and a number of other dates there is a lower cost alternative if you want a top quality example at a low price as a Proof-65 currently lists at $1,100 and the availability is striking, with PCGS having seen close to 120 examples in Proof-65 or better.
We see similar situations with other years as well and especially in the case of lower mintage dates the option of acquiring a proof example while perhaps not producing a set that is uniform in grade is an option that can greatly reduce the cost.
The dates from 1872 through 1876 are similar, with mintages ranging from just over two million for the 1875 to just over six million for the 1872. That puts them all in a relatively narrow price range starting at $28 in G-4 for the 1873 with the lower mintage 1875 at $40. In MS-60 the prices start at $200 for the 1873 “Open 3” and go as high as $350 for the 1873 “Closed 3.” The other dates run in the low to mid $200s.
In MS-65, the 1872 at $1,350 is the least expensive while the most costly is the $3,250 for the “Closed 3” 1873 while the “Open 3” is $2,400 and the 1875 is at $2,000. Once again the availability of proofs is far greater and the price much lower, with the most expensive proof being the 1875 at $1,650 while the least costly is the $820 1872.
An interesting observation is that it was during this period when the Seated Liberty half dime was eliminated in 1873. The thought would be that as the only five-cent coin the Shield nickel would have then seen higher mintages, but that was not really the case. Probably as a result of the earlier high mintages, the best guess is that the nation simply had an adequate supply of the denomination so large mintages were not required.
There was certainly not a large mintage in 1877 or 1878 as those two years saw only proofs of the Shield nickel produced. The 1877 had an estimated mintage of 900 and it is the tougher of the two with a current price of $4,300 in Proof-65. In the case of the 1878, the mintage was placed at 2,350, making it much more available at just $2,150 in Proof-65.
The prices appear to be supported by the PCGS totals as it has seen the 1877 a total of 52 times in Proof-65 or better while the 1878 total is over 140 in the same grades.
Business strikes would return to production in 1879, but hardly in large numbers. The likely reason was that the mints were busy with the production of Morgan dollars, which was legally required under the terms of the Bland-Allison Act. With heavy Morgan dollar mintages, the totals for other denominations suffered at all facilities although only Philadelphia was allowed to produce Shield nickels as other facilities were not allowed to produce coins containing no gold or silver.
The 1879 Shield nickel mintage was just 29,100 pieces, by far the lowest business strike total up to that time, and that makes the 1879 a much better date at $415 in G-4. In MS-60 the 1879 lists for $970 while an MS-65 is at $2,000, although the proof option is very real with significantly larger numbers available and a price of just $840.
The 1880, with a mintage of just 19,995, would be the lowest mintage nickel business strike in history and it is appropriately a tough coin with a G-4 price of $560. An MS-60 is at $3,450 while an MS-65 is at $47,500. A Proof-65, however, is just $700 and that certainly makes many think twice about whether they want an MS-65 or Proof-65.
The PCGS totals tell the story as it has seen the 1880 just three times in MS-65 or better, but the Proof-65 total is over 200, making the 1880 the most extreme case of a date where the Proof-65 is a much lower cost alternative to an MS-65, or in this case even an MS-60.
The 1881 had a higher mintage of 72,375, although that is still a very low total for a denomination that saw as much use as a nickel. The 1881 with that low mintage still commands a solid premium at $270 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $800 and an MS-65 at $1,900. Those prices make the 1881 another case where the Proof-65 is an attractive alternative as it is cheaper than either the MS-60 or MS-65 at just $660.
Things would change dramatically in 1882 as there was a clear need for a heavy infusion of nickels into circulation. The 1882 had a mintage of 11,476,600 and that makes it a readily available date with a price of $18 in G-4, $150 in MS-60 and $750 in MS-65. A proof is still less expensive, although not by much, as a Proof-65 is $660. In fact the supply of Mint State examples of the 1882 is large as there was unusual hoarding at the time as the following year would see the introduction of the Liberty Head design and the collectors of the day somewhat surprisingly hoarded all nickels including the outgoing Shield nickels with PCGS reporting hundreds of Mint State examples, although primarily in grades from MS-60 to MS-63.
The final 1883 mintage would include an 1883/2, which is the one significant error in Shield nickels. The 1883/2 lists for $210 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $1,400 while an MS-65 is $4,000 so while tough it is possible to include the 1883/2 in a collection.
The regular 1883 had a mintage of 1,456,919, but it is more available than that total suggests as it was heavily saved. The 1883 lists for $18 in G-4 with an MS-60 at $160 while an MS-65 is at $750. The Proof-65 is $660. PCGS reports over 270 examples of the 1883 just in MS-65, or better making it a perfect choice if you want a high grade type coin for a modest price.
Certainly the Shield nickel is an interesting set, but one which seems to attract relatively few collectors. It is probably a case where most collectors looking at coins of the 1800s opt for silver or gold but realistically a coin like the Shield nickel has a lot to offer. There are not only some low mintage dates, but realistically the story of the Shield nickel is very much the story of the United States at the time. It is a coin that was born out of the emergency of the Civil War and then its lowest mintages came along at the time when the mints were overwhelmed with silver dollar production.
In addition, it is a coin that basically set the stage for what is now over 140 years of other nickels, all with basically the same composition as the Shield nickel with the exception of the special composition nickels of World War II. It is really a fascinating legacy for a somewhat overlooked coin that is also an excellent collection.