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​The First Jefferson Nickel, 1938

When introduced in 1938, the Jefferson nickel represented a new face, literally, for United States coinage.  The new nickel was the third coin ever produced to feature a former President, and at the time was just the second coin bearing a former President’s image.  Demand for the coin was large initially, and as the longest running currently minted coin its likely to be in high demand as the first of key dates to have in the Jefferson nickel series.

The design of the coin was an adaption of the Jean-Antoine Houdon bust of Tomas Jefferson on the obverse of the coin, and the image of his home in Virginia, know as the Monticello.  An open entry contest was sponsored and the winner, Felix Schlag, chosen.  Production of the first 1938 nickels began in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Fransisco on October 3rd 1938.  In all, over 30 million of the new coins would be minted that year.

The vast majority of 1938 Jefferson nickels were minted in Philadelphia, and the scarcity of Denver and San Francisco coins make them much more valuable.  That year, over 19 million ‘P’ nickels were struck, compared to only slightly over 5 million ‘D’ nickels and 4 million ‘S’ nickels.  Because of this, even coins with gradings well below uncirculated command premium prices.  However, as the collector interest in the 1938 Jefferson has always been high, there is an unusual abundance of high quality coins, keeping prices lower that what just the low mintages would indicate.

The new coins were popular with collectors however, and so the old Buffalo nickel remained heavily circulated until just before the start of the Second World War.  Initial strikes were often weak however, and steps on the reverse of the coin are often faint and disjointed, even on otherwise high quality coins.  This make coins with specially well struck features tremendously valuable to collectors.  The weak strikes were a continuing problem that was eventually solved on more modern years of the Jefferson nickel.

Proof coins were also issued in a proof variety solely for collectors.  The proofs were minted in Philadelphia, and just over 19,000 were made.  The coins were still subject to the weak striking on the steps of the reverse, but as grading guidelines specify only 5 out of 6 steps showing to qualify as ‘Full Step’ nickels, so high gradings are possible.

Whatever the condition, regardless of mint mark, any nickel from 1938 is a keeper in any Jefferson nickel coin collector’s album.  The age of the nickel, as well its history and significance give it a value all its own, a feature current owners do not fail to recognize.


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