Why Not Collect Jefferson Nickels?

Looking for an easy collecting challenge? Jefferson nickels may be just the thing for you. They are readily available, and relatively inexpensive. They are also one of our most attractive modern American coins, and the series offers some interesting variations and historically important pieces. It is also quite a long series that was made at three different mints, so it contains numerous coins.

When the old Buffalo/Indian nickel was discontinued in 1938 a contest was held to select a new design for our nation’s five-cent coin. It was unusual for the Mint to go to outside artists for coinage designs, but in this exceptional case a prize of $1,000 was offered for the most appropriate design depicting Thomas Jefferson. Nearly 400 artists competed in the contest. The winning design was that of a talented young artist, Felix Schlag.

The original Schlag design showed a portrait of Jefferson facing left on the front, and Jefferson’s home, Monticello, on the reverse. The building was shown in a three-quarter side view, which many considered very attractive, but which Mint engravers thought would not lend itself to the kind of image needed for a shallow die that would stand up under mass production of the coins.

Felix-Schlag-Design Felix Schlag - Original Nickel Design
Felix Schlag – Original Nickel Design

During the finishing stages of die making, Mint engravers replaced the Schlag building with a formal front view of the Jefferson home. The portrait of Jefferson, which had been taken from the life-composition bust by Houdon, was kept just as Schlag designed it. The finished product was an apt companion to the quarter dollar coin that had been released in 1932 with a lifelike portrait of George Washington also taken from a bust by Houdon. The success of those two coins set the stage for a series of modern coins using portraits of great presidents and statesmen.

Final Nickel Design (Reverse)
Final Nickel Design (Reverse)

The last of the Buffalo nickels was manufactured in 1938. That was the same year that the first of the new Jefferson nickels was issued. There was a general anticipation of the new designs by the public because of advanced publicity about the design contest, and a longing for almost any sort of changes after the great depression. America was awakening from its long sleep, anticipating a bright new world ahead, and anxious to show off its new interest in all things technical and beautiful. New coinage designs were but one small way in which that feeling of outreach could be shown.

By the time Jefferson nickels had become a familiar design in the early 1940s, collectors began to realize that only a limited number of coins were struck in 1938 and 1939. This was especially true of coins made at the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco. Mintage figures for those coins were low by any standards, and collectors rushed to save all of those elusive coins that they could find. In a way that was fortunate for the collectors of today because sufficient quantities were saved in high grade condition to take care of heavy demand.

It is still possible to find an occasional 1938-D or 1938-S Jefferson nickel in circulation, or Extremely Fine specimens can be purchased from dealers for around $3.00 each. Pieces dated 1939-D, the scarcest of the early dates, are rarely found today, but can still be purchased for about $10.00 in high grade. Much scarcer than those are the unusual nickels dated 1939 on which the words MONTICELLO and FIVE CENTS are distinctly doubled. Those are valued at over $50.00 by people who collect unusual mint errors. The strange doubling was caused by a faulty die that produced a dual image of the letters on the reverse of the coin.

Doubling on the 1939 nickels was not the only oddity in this series. For some reason applying the mintmarks to the dies seemed to be a problem in some years. In 1942, for instance, the mintmark “D” was first punched sideways, and then corrected with an upright letter. In the years 1949, 1954 and 1955, they made dies with one mintmark on top of a different one so that it is nearly impossible to tell if the coin was intended to be made in Denver or San Francisco.

The strangest oddity in the Jefferson series of nickels is a coin dated 1943 in which the figure “3” in the date was first designed to be a “2”. This is not the first time in the history of U.S. coins that such a thing has happened. There are many other such instances, but very few of them in the twentieth century. Apparently the die was originally intended to be dated 1942, but then through accident or design, it was changed to 1943, and traces of both dates can be seen clearly on these coins.

The general availability of Jefferson nickels makes the series one that can easily be collected either from circulation or at relatively low cost from dealers or other collectors. Some specialists attempt to find all of the many unusual varieties mentioned in this article, but most people are happy just finding one of each date and mintmark. There are a number of different albums and holders made especially to hold a collection of these nickels. Most prognosticators feel that this series will continue to be minted well into the next century, and thus it is a good one to collect now, and in the future.

A good alternative to saving a full set of Jefferson nickels is the short set of wartime coins that were made from 1942 to 1945. These are historically important because they are so closely connected to World War II, and the sacrifices made by all to win the war. The coins were made out of an alloy of manganese, copper and silver. They were placed in circulation in October 1942 to replace the copper-nickel version that was using so much of the copper that was a critical wartime metal. Those so-called “silver nickels” were identified with large mintmarks, on the reverse above the building, so that they could be easily withdrawn from circulation after the war. In the period around 1980 the value of silver rose to a point where many more of these coins were melted because they were worth much more than their face value. Today they are rarely seen in change, though they can often found in household accumulations of odd coins.

Collecting Jefferson nickels can be both challenging and rewarding. It is a series that is full of surprises and odd pieces that are not usually seen in other types of coins. It is an open series that can still be saved while most of the dates and mintmarks are still in circulation, and one not limited by great rarities or expensive varieties.

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