I have been interested in coins since I was a young age and enjoy collecting coins and writing about them.
Origin of the Jefferson Nickel
The Jefferson nickel series is one of the longest running coin series in U.S. history, only to be outdone in length by the Lincoln cent and the Washington quarter. In 1938, Treasury officials decided it was time for a change from the Buffalo nickel, which had been in service since 1913. The mint sponsored a design contest with $1,000 in prize money for the winner. Of the 390 entrants into the nickel design contest, the artist Felix Schlag won with his motif picturing Thomas Jefferson on the obverse and an angular view of his home called Monticello on the reverse.
Schlag’s obverse design is very similar to what was on the coin issued in 1938 with Jefferson in profile, IN GOD WE TRUST to the left, and LIBERTY and the date on the right of the bust. Schlag’s rendition of Monticello was that of an angular side view of the building rather than the frontal view we see today. The reverse design of Monticello was modified at the request of the Treasury Department to a frontal design that appeared on the 1938 coins that entered circulation the second week of September of that year.
Full Step Jefferson Nickels
The original design of the reverse proved to be a problem in that the steps on the portico of Monticello were of too high a definition for the copper/nickel alloy to flow properly into the die during the minting process, resulting in steps that were poorly formed. A single blow from the dies at normal striking pressure simply did not adequately bring up the design of the steps. As a result, collectors are always on the lookout for nickels that have fully formed steps leading into Monticello; thus was born the “full step” Jefferson nickel.
Some of the rarest full step Jeffersons come from the 1950s and 1960s when quality control at the mint was less strict and most of the coins had soft strikes and only partially visible steps. In 1970 the design and minting process was changed so that Jeffersons with full steps became common. Full step nickels are either designated with five steps (5FS) or with six steps (6FS).
World War II and the Silver Nickel
During World War II, nickel became a strategic metal, finding many uses in the making of munitions. With nickel in short supply the War Department worked with the mint to find a substitute for the nickel being used for coinage. The Jefferson nickel is only 25% nickel, but it was a ready source of metal for the war effort. Making a suitable substitute turned out to be more problematic than expected as phone booths and vending machines had built-in counterfeit detection systems which used the weight and/or the electrical resistance of the coin as a criterion to determine if a coin was genuine. After much experimentation, metallurgists at the mint found that five cent coins made from an alloy of silver, copper, and manganese worked in phone booths and vending machines without triggering the counterfeit coin detectors.
The series of “silver war nickels” started in mid-1942 and ran through the end of the war in 1945. They are easily distinguished by the large P, D, or S mint mark on the reverse of the coin above Monticello. As an interesting side note, the P mintmark on the silver nickels was the first time a mintmark appeared on a U.S. coin struck at Philadelphia. War nickels that have little wear or are uncirculated display a silver-white appearance; when worn, they take on a greenish or grey cast. The silver content is worth $1.40 for the spot price of silver at $25.00 per Troy ounce.
After World War II
After the war, in 1946, the Jefferson nickel design returned to its original 1938 alloy composition. Starting in 1966 the designer’s initials, FS, were added below the bust, and minor changes were made to the dies to strengthen the design during the 1970s and early 1980s. The mintmark position was moved from the reverse to the obverse in 1968. During this period, the mintmarks were hand punched into the dies at the Philadelphia Mint, leading to some variation of the position of the mintmarks.
Westward Journey Series 2004-2005
In 2004, the reverse of the coins went through major redesigns to commemorate the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1804 to this unexplored country. In 2004, the obverse remained unchanged, but the reverse had two different designs, the “Peace Medal” and the “Keelboat.” The Peace Medal design was fashioned based on the original peace medal that Lewis and Clark presented to Indian chiefs as tokens of friendship along their journey from St. Louis to the Pacific coast. The second design depicts the type of boat that transported the expedition and their supplies through the rivers of the Louisiana Territory.
In 2005, the nickel went through major design changes to the both the obverse and reverse. The new obverse portrait of President Jefferson was based on a 1789 marble bust, and “Liberty” was written in cursive based on Jefferson’s own handwriting. Two reverse designs were used, the first being the American Bison, which features a bison in profile. The bison, which the explorers encountered along their journey, was very important to the many Native American tribes they encountered. The second reverse called “Ocean in View” was inspired by an entry in Clark’s journal in 1805, which read, “Ocean in view! O! The joy!”
2006 to Present Design
At the end of the Westward Journey series, the mint produced the five-cent coin with a modified version of the bust of President Jefferson, which also contains the date, mint mark, Liberty in cursive, and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. The reverse of the modern design is very similar to the 1938 design with Felix Schlag’s initials on the right side of Monticello, in the same location as the mintmark on the original 1938 series.
Don’t forget to add at least one of each type of the Jefferson nickels to your collection. If you have the patience, you can put together a complete set of the nickels, including each date and mint mark, for a rather modest amount. The series is very collectable with many interesting design variations and varieties.
1938-1942, 1946 to date. Weight 5.0 grams; composition 0.750 copper and 0.250 nickel; diameter 21.1 mm; plain edge; Mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco.
1942-1945. Weight: 5.0 grams; composition 0.560 copper, 0.350 silver, 0.090 manganese, with net wight 0.05626 ounces pure silver; diameter 21.1 mm; plain edge; Mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco.
Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2007.
Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York: F.C.I Press, Inc., 1988.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2021 Doug West