In the 19th century there was general public prejudice against portraits appearing on the coinage. This was partly due to the belief that President Washington in early 1792 had refused to allow his profile to appear on coins of this country. His wish was honored for more than a century, until the time of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Rough Rider president felt that Abraham Lincoln had been dead for nearly 50 years and had stood the test of time, historians ranking him among the best. For this reason, Roosevelt decided that the Civil War chief executive would grace the one-cent piece and commissioned skilled artisan and sculptor Victor David Brenner to do the honors. The new coin was well received but no further portraits on the regular coinage were created until 1932, when George Washington got his just reward on the quarter dollar, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Franklin Roosevelt became president in March 1933 and at first had other matters on his mind, notably the Great Depression, but he was also an avid stamp collector and perhaps dabbled in coins as well. FDR’s postmaster general, James A. Farley, created numerous special philatelic issues and it was not that much of a stretch to extend this interest towards coins. By 1937 the Administration had decided that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president, would be on the five-cent piece beginning in 1938.
No Congressional action was required for the Jefferson portrait because an 1890 law stipulated that coinage designs could be changed after 25 years by the Treasury without legislative action. Technically the Treasury Secretary had the final say in the choice of designs but in reality, the White House would have made the real decision, just as had been done by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
Letters were sent to leading American sculptors, inviting them to compete for a prize of $1000 and the honor of having the winning design appear on the coinage. One of these invitations went to Felix Schlag, who only recently had become an American citizen. The models had to be received in Washington by April 20, 1938.
Schlag was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1891, the son of Karl Schlag, a talented sculptor. The younger Schlag was apprenticed to his father from 1906 to 1909 and later gained admittance to the prestigious Frankfurt School of Applied Art, where he studied under several well-known artists. Due to the poor economic climate in Germany in the 1920s, however, he emigrated to America; after arriving here, he tried several locations before deciding upon Chicago and American citizenship in 1938.
Artistic commissions were not all that common in the Midwest and Schlag determined to do his best to win the design contest. He first obtained a copy of the famed Houdon bust of Jefferson and then used it to create a stunning portrait on the plaster models required by the terms of the contest.
In all, for this contest, there were nearly 400 entries from artists, a few sculptors submitting more than one set of plaster models. Some bordered on the ludicrous, though many were of a high quality that made it difficult for the judges to decide upon the best artwork.
The judges made their decision on April 21 and Schlag was notified by telegram of his winning entry the following day. Well, almost a winning entry since only the obverse had been officially accepted and Schlag was now required to modify the reverse vignette as well as use standard Roman-style lettering instead of the sans-serif version that he had employed on the models.
For the reverse, Schlag had chosen an imaginative and especially well-done side view of Monticello (Jefferson’s home in Virginia), which unfortunately did not find favor in government circles, especially the Commission of Fine Arts. This Commission, which passed on all coinage designs, made it clear that it preferred the revised lettering as well as a front view of Monticello. Within a short time, this had been done to official satisfaction and the artist was paid the prize money. The Treasury formally confirmed its approval of the new design in July 1938.
The $1000 prize money, perhaps equivalent to more than $10,000 today, was a bittersweet victory for Schlag. His wife had just died after a lingering illness and the money went to pay accumulated medical bills and funeral expenses. He remarried but changed his occupation to photographer and died in Owosso, Michigan, in March 1974.
In the meantime, there was still public demand for nickels and the Denver Mint struck the Buffalo design for a few months into 1938. All three mints could have done so but had the Philadelphia Mint struck the old design it would also have been obligated to prepare proof coins and this was ruled out by Mint Director Nellie Taylor Ross. Full proof sets were not available until late 1938 although prior to 1942 collectors were able to buy individual proof coins.
Coinage began in mid-September 1938 at the Philadelphia Mint and continued at a reasonably strong pace the rest of the year. Dies were then sent to Denver and San Francisco, where striking started somewhat later. As a result, nickel coinages at those mints were lower than at Philadelphia, partly due to lower demand in the Western states.
After a thorough examination of the 1938 coinage, Chief Engraver John Sinnock decided that certain minor revisions were in order. These changes were done to ensure that the coins struck up better.
During 1939 new reverse dies were used at Philadelphia and also furnished to the other two mints. As a result, both sets of reverses are available for the year although Variety I issues for Philadelphia are much harder to find than those of Variety II. (The easiest way to determine which is which is to compare well-struck issues of 1938 with those of 1940 or 1941.)
There is little in the way of variation for 1938, except perhaps the quality of the strike, but there was an interesting blunder on a 1939 reverse die used at Philadelphia. The working die shifted between blows of the master hub and the result was very clear doubling for the word MONTICELLO; this piece is popular with modern-day collectors.
In the 1970s and 1980s one of the pastimes of avid nickel collectors was to search for the best reverse strike, which was determined by the number of steps visible at the lower center of the Monticello building. There are supposed to be six steps but most nickels from this period have less and often one cannot even see steps when the striking was not up to par.
The coinage of nickels at all three mints in 1940 and following years was up heavily over that of 1938-1939 due to the rapid increase in prewar expenditures as the nation geared up for the inevitable war with Germany and Japan. Until the 1970s, collectors could still easily pull nickels of these two dates from circulation.
After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, military authorities were faced with a shortage of critical war materials, especially nickel. By the summer of 1942 the need had become pressing, and a sustained effort ensued to determine the best way to remove nickel from the coinage and replace it with something that would meet vending machine needs.
In due course, and after innumerable tests, Mint technicians found that an alloy of silver (35 percent), manganese (9 percent), and copper (56 percent) was the answer. Congressional authorization and heavy coinage soon followed, in October 1942. For technical reasons Denver continued to use the old composition until year’s end.
Despite the pressing demands of coinage in 1942, the Philadelphia Mint struck proof nickels in the new alloy. (Although usually called ‘silver’ nickels, the true name for the combination is billon, because there is less than half silver in the coin.) It was to be the last proof coinage at the Philadelphia Mint until the practice resumed in 1950.
At present, especially among those who specialize in nickels, the 1942 ‘war nickel’ proofs – as they are sometimes called, are very popular as there is but one year of coinage. It is likely that this interest will continue, especially for type collections.
The war-time nickels could easily be taken from circulation well into the 1950s but by 1960 were not seen all that often. The inexorable rise in the price of silver after 1961 made certain that any remaining pieces in the marketplace would soon be pulled, either being hoarded or sold to bullion dealers.
The most interesting piece to arise from the war years, in some eyes, is the 1943/2 overdate; discovered some years after the war, today it brings a very good price, especially in high grade. It has the added prestige of being the only known overdate in the Jefferson series, although there are several reverse dies known with altered mintmarks.
War’s end in 1945 meant that the special silver alloy would soon disappear. To avoid having two compositions in one year, however, the old mixture of copper and nickel was not used again until January 1946. Perhaps because of post-war let-down, the mints did not do all that well with nickels in 1946 but by 1947 pre-war quality had resumed and specialists find that the coins are much better struck than 1946.
It is not until 1949 that the Denver Mint provides us with something out the ordinary. The engraving department at Philadelphia, perhaps as the result of a rush order, had taken a reverse die already carrying the “S” mintmark and repunched it with the letter “D.” Coins from this particular reverse die are not all that common.
Perhaps the most famous nickel of these years was the 1950–D. The mintage was less than 3 million and when word got out several dealers made it a point to visit as many banks as possible in the areas covered by the Denver Mint to buy up the 1950–D. A fair number did reach circulation, however, and the writer of this article obtained one from pocket change in 1951.
The quality of striking for nickels deteriorated during the 1950s and the 1954-S has been declared by some nickel specialists to be the worst-struck coin of the series. This was determined by the number of specimens in which six full steps can be seen on uncirculated coins. The 1953-S issues are nearly as bad and high-quality specimens of either date generally bring stronger prices.
The special war-time nickel coinage was marked by the mints with large mintmarks above Monticello. This oddity led to the arrest of a counterfeiter, Francis Henning, in 1955; the ‘private minter’ made 1944 nickels, among other dates, but did not realize that a special mintmark was needed. Sharp-eyed New Jersey numismatists spotted these pieces in short order and notified the proper police agencies.
The early 1960s brought little in the way of relief for collectors searching for high-quality specimens. Despite the 1964 date freeze, issues of this date usually come poorly struck and the 1964-D is generally given the dubious honor of being the worst Denver mint issue for the Jefferson nickel.
The date freeze of 1964, due to the ongoing coin shortage, also meant that proof sets were not struck for 1965–1967. Instead, the Mint prepared the so-called Special Mint Sets, which of late have been better appreciated than they were at the time. These sets do have superior coins in them although not as good as proofs. In 1966, because of collector initiative, the initials of Felix Schlag (FS) were added to the obverse.
Although Mint Director Eva Adams blamed collectors, and just about everyone else except herself, for the coin shortage of the 1960s, it was essentially over by late in 1967. Coinages then returned to more reasonable levels.
Beginning in 1968 Director Adams ordered that the mintmark be changed to the obverse of all coins. She also arranged for all proof coins to be struck at the re-opened San Francisco mint, taking this task away from Philadelphia.
Over the next several years the Jefferson nickel remained pretty much stereotyped but there were some aberrations to enliven collector interest. In 1971 the mintmark was accidentally left off one of the proof dies used at San Francisco and the few pieces that managed to leave that mint bring strong prices.
The next piece of more than passing interest came in 1997, when “special uncirculated” nickels were included in the Thomas Jefferson commemorative silver dollar package. They resemble proof coins but do not quite meet this grade. As with the 1971 coinage noted above, the special 1997 coins are in demand from nickel specialists.
From 1997 through 2003 there was little in the way of special news about the lowly nickel but in 2003 Congress approved some radical changes to the nickel for the years 2004 and 2005. This was done in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean, an epic trip which lasted from 1804 to 1806. Oddly enough, there was no special reverse for 2006 but there was a new obverse.
For 2004 the regular obverse was used with two special reverses, both of which are well done and appropriate. The first, with crossed hands, is taken directly from the 1801 Jefferson Indian Peace medal reverse, which was likely designed by Jefferson himself. These medals were passed out by Lewis and Clark on their expedition. The second reverse is the keelboat used by the explorers on the trip up the Missouri, a design well worthy of being used on this coinage.
In 2005 not only were there two new reverses commemorating Lewis and Clark, but the obverse was a special one-year only version showing the third president in a new look. The first reverse, with a buffalo, is a rather pedestrian design but the second, with the quotation from Clark about the Pacific Ocean in view, is innovative and a distinct credit to the Mint. In 2006 there appeared a new obverse design, which is use at present.
There was an unseemly Congressional debate about the new nickel designs, with legislators from Virginia acting as though Jefferson was somehow to be on the nickel permanently, no one having the right to remove his portrait. Considering that Virginia has two presidents on the coinage, including George Washington, this attitude perhaps tells us more about Congress than the coinage.
After 2005 we find a few nickels issued with special finishes, but these have not yet caught on all that well with the collecting public.