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Felix Schlag: Designer of the Original Jefferson Nickel

Beginning in the 1790s, the five-cent piece in circulation in the United States at the time was made of silver was referred to as the half-dime and was struck in the cellar of a saw maker which the Philadelphia mint was under construction. Then in the 1860s, the nickel in its current composition of 75% copper and 25% was struck and placed into circulation in order to conserve silver and other precious metals for the efforts of the Civil War.

In 1938 when the Buffalo Nickel was discontinued, it was finally replaced by the Jefferson Nickel which is still in existence today. Since that time,Thomas Jefferson has always been represented on the US nickel five cent coin piece, except for 2004 and 2005 when a nickel commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition was issued.

The most common, and possibly most famous, nickel design was the left-facing side view of Jefferson by Felix Oscar Schlag, which graced the obverse of the coin from 1938 to 2003. After the two years of Western Journey Commemoratives, the nickel went back to featuring Thomas Jefferson on the obverse in 2006, but the design was updated to a front-facing portrait of the former president, created by Jamie Franki.

The design for the most recognizable Jefferson Nickel design which was struck in US mints for 65 years, was created by Felix Schlag whose artistry was chosen through a competition. In preparation for the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth in 1943, a public contest was announced during which participants could submit designs for the obverse of the new nickel, which would include a portrait Jefferson’s head. The reverse of the new nickel would include a pictorial of Monticello, Jefferson’s home. The prize for winning the contest for the Jefferson Nickel was $1000. Almost 400 designs were presented in the competition

The winner of this competition, Felix O. Schlag, had created a design which was similar to a famous bust of Jefferson in a Boston Art Museum. Officials, however, did not prefer Schlag’s rendition of Monticello submitted for the reverse, nor did they approve of the lettering used on the original submission. The designer and winner of the competition was required to submit changes for both, which would ultimately be struck onto billions of coins and eventually circulated throughout the United States and even over the world.

After alterations were made to the design, the Jefferson nickel was finally produced in October of 1938 and released into circulation that November. Upon its release, the new nickel was apparently squirreled away by coin collectors who saw potential in this unique situation. Reports indicate that this new 1938 US five cent piece designed by Schlag was not regularly used as currency for two more years.

Mr. Felix Schlag, born in 1891, was an immigrant from Germany to the United States in 1929, and was an already successful artist prior to his arrival. During his early time in the US, Schlag assisted with the design of automobiles for General Motors. Upon moving to Chicago, the artist was commissioned to design sculptures for prominent public places around the city in that era. Schlag became a United States citizen the same year that his design appeared on the Jefferson nickel.

In 1939, Felix Schlag commemorated the circulation of his design with the creation of 150 limited edition serialized and notarized certificates of authenticity, which included a Proof of the 1938 nickel and a photo of his original design.  Some collectors have set about to find the location of these 150 signed certificates. Their value is difficult to determine but they are unique.

It wasn’t until nearly 30 years after the original minting (in 1966) that the designer’s initials, FS, were struck into the nickel’s design below Jefferson’s portrait on the front bottom rim of the coin. Two special coins with this alteration were struck and given to Mr. Schlag as a commemorative gift.

Felix Schlag died in 1974 and several years later a granite stone was erected at the foot of his gravesite. The stone contains replications of the obverse and reverse of the Schlag’s original Jefferson nickel design he submitted to the competition in 1938.

Since 2006, the design on the obverse of the Jefferson nickel has been replaced with a design by Jamie Franki. The image is a front view rather than side view, and the details of the design look sharper when struck into the metal of the coin. The reverse of the Jefferson nickel still contains the same Monticello design that was designed by Schlag and placed on the reverse of the 1938 five cent coin.

At some point near the end of his life, Felix Schlag is quoted as saying, “America’s got its nickel’s worth out of me, wouldn’t you agree?”

The Future of Jefferson Nickels

The Jefferson Nickel is an anomaly among current us coins.  It is a low denomination, but by necessity it is also large and heavy, and so consequently contains an inordinate amount of metal for its face value.  It is like the Lincoln cent, whose public opinion has swayed on whether or not to continue the penny, and reason behind spending twice the face value of a coin to produce only one.  If ever the venerable cent was removed, the current nickel in use today has a precarious position before it, as the very same reasons that make the withdrawing of the one cent denomination appealing, apply to the Jefferson Nickel as well.

The nickel as we know it, a five cent denomination of nickel and copper, has been in existence since 1866 with the introduction of the shield nickel.  The reason for the coin’s introduction was simple, as there was a lack of excess silver needed to produce the then used ‘half-disme’ and the popularity of the copper one and two cent coin also in existence proved the viability of base metal coins in common use.  As expected, the new coin was wildly popular, and successfully replaced the fractional paper currency that was discontinued in 1865.

That the Jefferson Nickel is a low denomination but large coin is the result of the nature of the U.S. Mint coining system.  The dime, its next highest denomination, is already very small in weight and diameter, making a smaller, lower denomination coin not feasible.  The nickel has to be positioned so that it’s larger and easily distinguished from the dime, but also smaller, and distinctly different from the quarter.  The resulting coin is large and fat for its face value.  That means the higher metal content of the coin, in addition to labor and production, cost the U.S. Mint approximately 11 cents to produce just one nickel.  As inflation continues to erode the purchasing power of the penny, and consequently nickel, the pressure to cease production of these coins will increase. This means that eventually, the cent, and also nickel will become relics of the past.

Even now, it is not uncommon for collectors to hoard pre-1981 pennies due to their high copper content and low face value, and the nickel is now also seeing interest in hoarding the coin as well.  In 2011 Congress made illegal the melting of nickels for their base metal content, but as metal values increase so too will the incentives for those who save them, despite the ban.  Bulk listings of pre-1981 cents on ebay commonly go for a premium above face value, solely for the worth of the metal content.

Jefferson Nickel collecting has always been strong from a numismatist perspective however, and when collecting in mint state or uncirculated condition can yield valuable collections for future generations.  Premium prices are for only coins of the best quality however, above AU-50, and because of the high mintages for current and most previous years keep prices relatively low for those coins.  Coins at lower grades cannot command even modest prices because the availability of better coins, with the possible exception of the 1950-D.  Take advantage of the waining years of low denomination mintages, and save premium strikes for future collectors to enjoy.

Grading Jefferson Nickels

Coins have been collected as a hobby for centuries.  Ceaser Augustus was known to give foreign coins to friends as saturnalia gifts.  Numismatics was known as the “Hobby of the Kings” during the middle ages because of the interest in coins many European monarchs had.  Today, the hobby is a well defined industry, with standards for coin grading and mounting to ensure that flawless mint state coins get the distinction they rightfully command.

The sorting and grading of coins in the professional world is a competitive commercial enterprise.  There are several grading agencies, all of whom will take any coins submitted by clients and assign a specific alphanumeric designation of the coins overall appearance. Having coins graded professionally, also known as ‘slabbing’, will give coins higher premiums over the same quality ungraded coins, but the service is expensive and not always worth the cost for low value coins.  Not all grading services rate coins the same.  The most well know are PCGS, Professional Coin Grading Service, and NGC, Numismatic Guaranty Corporation.  Take note of the prices commanded by pieces in very high condition, MS-65 or higher for the same coin, as there may be significant differences in price for coins the same grade graded by different grading services.

Very few collectors can afford the expense of sending every coin they have to a professional service to determine the value of their collection, so every collector should know the basic Sheldon scale of coin grading.  The collectible condition of coins vary from perfect uncirculated, the best example of a minted coin, to about good, an example with little more that just the date visible on the coin. All coins rate on a scale of 0-70, with 70 being the best.  Additionally, letter designations are added to describe the overall appearance of coins.

The grading of coins from best quality to worst for Jefferson Nickels are:

MS-70  Perfect Uncirculated, a flawless coin representative of the best coins stuck for circulation made by the Mint.  Coins have full brilliance and luster.

MS-65  Choice Uncirculated, a coin with slight blemishes and trace nicks, scratches or uneven toning, still has full luster and brilliance.

MS-60  Uncirculated, may have apparent blemishes and bag marks, but absolutely no trace of wear.  Coins may or may not have full luster or brilliance.  To check to wear inspect the cheek bone, and the hair over the ear on the obverse of the coin, and the roof over the pillars on the reverse.

AU-55  Choice About Uncirculated, Jefferson’s cheekbone shows wear, and on reverse roof above pillars as well.  75 percent of mint luster should be remaining on coin.

AU-50  About Uncirculated, cheekbone and hair show wear, roof on reverse is also showing signs of wear.  Only half of mint luster needs to be remaining to qualify for this designation.

EF-45  Choice Extremely Fine, the bottom of the bust will show signs of wear, along with the cheekbone, hair and roof above the pillars. Must still have traces of original mint luster

EF-40  Extremely Fine, wear is more prominent on bottom of bust, cheekbone and hair.  On the reverse, the roof and middle beam show wear.

VF-30  Choice Very Fine, light to moderate signs of wear are visible on features of coin, all detail are clear however.

VF-20  Very Fine, over half of hair is worn away, some detail still remains in Jefferson’s collar.  Triangular roof on reverse is only partially visible

F-12  Fine, little detail shows in hair, other features weak but clear.  On reverse roof above pillars becomes indistinct.

VG-8  Very Good, this coin is well worn, but feature of face should be distinct, with a visible collar and few lines in hair.  On reverse, arch is now worn away, along with heavy wear to roof.

G-4  Good, very worn and faded, with some of script of the motto merging into the rim. Little detail remaining in design on both sides

AG-3  About Good,  all features heavily worn, with a weak but still visible date and motto.

These guidelines should help the aspiring collector know what coin they have, and what might just be worth the $30.00 or so to send their coins off to a professional coin grading company.

Jefferson Nickel Mint Marks

In numismatics, it pays to pay attention to detail.  That is why so much importance is placed on those fine details.  The mint mark is one of those crucial details an amateur can learn rather easily to greatly improve his knowledge of rare and current coins.  The tiny, distinct lettering, placed all by itself and sometimes changing in location on the same coin from year to year, serves a crucial purpose to identify coins of the same year, and has been of great importance to numismatics since the opening of the second, third, and fourth U.S. Mint, all in 1838.

The first U.S Mint was established by the Treasury Department in Philadelphia in 1792, but as demands for more coins grew, Mint officials knew that the main office in Philadelphia would not be enough.  So, in 1838, three new branches were established in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dahlonega, Georgia,, and Charlotte, North Carolina.  In order to identify and track the pieces made at the new facilities, they were stamped with a one letter identifier, known as a mint mark.  As Philadelphia was first, and consequently the only mint in operation before 1838, no mint mark was placed on the coins it produced, and it continued with that practice after 1838 as well.

Jefferson nickels were produced at three mint facilities, the original Philadelphia Mint, the mint established at Denver in 1909, and the mint at San Fransisco, established in 1854.  For all years issued of the Jefferson nickel, there has been a Philadelphia issued coin.  There is no mint mark however on coins dated from 1938-1941, and 1946 to 1979.  In 1942-1945 and from 1980 to today, Philadelphia has be denoted by the letter P on U.S. coins.  Denver has used the D mark, and San Fransisco the S mark, and both have always used their respective marks, except during the hiatus of silver coins, from 1965-1967 (since these coins are identical to ones made at other facilities, coins of these years are treated as all of the same issue)..

The location of the mint marks varies over time, and may be indicators of a certain change in the coin.  Originally the mint mark was located on the reverse of the coin, to the right of the Monticello.  During WWII, the mark was moved to above the building, in large type so that they would be distinguishable from the regular issue.  After the war the mint mark was moved to its original location on the coin.  After the mint mark suspension was lifted in 1968, the mint mark was moved to the obverse of the coin, beneath the date.  In modern nickels the mint mark has moved to below the word liberty, but still on the front of the coin.

The attention to mint marks, specially the silver containing war issue nickels, will reward the collector with rare finds, and an extensive collection.

1942 Jefferson Nickel Proof

Proof coins are struck to satisfy the needs of a very particular coin user.  Only those individuals seeking a perfectly struck, brilliantly mirrored finish would appreciate the attention to detail and fine results the U.S. Mint have producing with regularity since 1936.  The eruption of war in Europe, and later the United State involvement in 1941, would lead to the suspension of proof coin production, giving collectors a true rarity for an otherwise plentiful Jefferson Nickel coin series.

At the time, all proof coins were produced in America’s first mint, in Philadelphia.  The coins were especially struck specimens, intended only for collectors.  Mint employees started with hand picked master dies, worked over to bring out full detail in every coin.  Also specially selected were the planchets, or coin blanks, that the dies pressed the design into to make a completed coin.  Instead of a single pass, that is, one die punch for the obverse, or front, and reverse, or back of the coin, the proof specimens were struck twice, in order to ensure that the design was in full relief and detail for collectors. There is however, no doubled die effect, as the exacting tolerances produce doubling only visible under high magnification.

When the United States entered the war in 1941, officials soon realized that the high demand for the element nickel, Ni, would soon deplete the available stocks of the rare metal, as it is heavily used in military production.  In response, the 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel was changed to 56 percent copper,  35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese.  This made the coin softer, and strike in higher detail.  In 1942 the new composition nickels went out for circulation.

1942 Jefferson proof nickels were also minted for collectors, but only in very limited numbers.  At a mintage of only 27,600 coins, it is a significantly rarer coin of the next available proof, in 1950, with a mintage of over 50,000.  Additionally, because proof production was suspended after 1942, it remains the only proof coin available for the ‘war era’ Jefferson nickels, making it sought after indeed.

Because the change from copper-nickel to war time silver alloy was enacted mid-year, both copper-nickel and silver alloy proofs were also struck.  Mintages for the pre-war 1942 proofs were similar to the war time composition, and both command prices around $100.00 in MS-65 or above.  Error coins, possibly created because of the haste required for the changeover.

Collecting the proof series of Jefferson coins can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience.  The earlier examples of Jefferson nickels, like the 1942 war composition nickel, command prices well within the budgets of modest collectors.  Particularity in lower grades, the availability and the fact that the coin is still in production today, keep prices low.  Investing in a Jefferson , if kept correctly, is always been a solid investment for a numismatist’s future.

The Jefferson Nickel & WWII

The numismatic world was not immune to the embroiling conflict in Europe and South East Asia of World War II.  As the war began to assume priority over less vital industries, the U.S. Mint and Treasury Department had to cope with the new demands and sacrifices needed to win.  The Jefferson nickel was no exception, and its minting, and even composition changed to suit.  It was not all a loss however, as numismatics gained some unique and valuable coins.

When the United States entered the war due to the events at Pearl Harbor in 1941, civilian production and hence U.S. Mint production was working at maritime conditions of supply and demand.  When President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for massive war time production increases, essentially a very large demand, the available peace time supply could not cope.  So even as production and use of raw materials geared up and increased production, it could not do so in time.

The shortage of materials was tackled head on.  Non-essential components utilizing material needed for the war effort was circumvented to military production.  Mint officials changed the 1941 pre-war alloy of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel to 59 percent copper, 35 percent silver, and 9 percent manganese, and they did this before end of the year.  This resulted in 1941 nickels of both varieties, distinguished by the location of the mint marks.  The larger the normal mint mark was moved from the right side of the Monticello, to above the building, and the Philadelphia mint used a ‘P’ for the first time to denote its coinage.

The production of proofs was also disrupted by the war.  As the exacting process was time consuming and the end result only of interest to numismatic collectors, it was decided to suspend production beginning in 1943.  The striking of proofs did not resume until 1950, making the 1942 proof in war issue silver the only proof available, increasing its value.  There were also copper nickel Jefferson proofs struck, and their rarity commands as high a price as the silver variety.

The war issue silvers are now hoarded by those investing in the silver market.  The rising prices, along with numismatic interest, has given these coins of circumstance the attention and value they deserve.  A debt to history and a great generation, and the unique influences they had on coins, nickels in particular, mean a fine Jefferson Nickel collection is not complete without a war era specimen to display with pride.

​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.

The History of the U.S. Jefferson Nickel

The Jefferson head nickel that we know today was born out of the frustration of the beautifully  detailed, but hard to strike Indian Head nickel.  The directors of the U.S. Mint pressured Congress to allow an easier to manufacture design, but the Indian Head was extremely popular during its time, and so the coin remained in production until 1938.  This was because the Indian Head was first issued in 1913, and as per Mint rules, no coin could be changed without congressional approval during the first 25 years of a new coin’s issue, but after would require no congressional approval.  So, in January 1938, the U.S. Treasury Department, the oversight department to the U.S. Mint, decided to change the difficult to strike Indian Head with a new design featuring Thomas Jefferson, in order to honor the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The U.S. Mint held an open contest to design the new coin, based on the Jean-Antoine Houdon bust of Jefferson, with the winner being awarded a 1,000 dollar prize and concluding in April.  The eventual winner of the competition was Felix Schlag, although it was not his winning design that was eventually placed on the new coin.  Mint officials voiced reserve about Schlag’s modern script and off-axis portrayal of Monticello, framed with what they erroneously thought was a palm tree, and asked Schlag to change the design.  Busy with other projects, Schlag did not complete the revised reverse of the coin until August.  On October 3rd the first Jefferson Nickel was struck, and his visage has been on the nickel ever since.

The nickel would prove to be a viable and well liked replacement, but it would need to adapt to world change as well.  With the United States entry into World War II, nickel (Ni), became a vital war material, and hence a replacement needed to be found to increase the limited supply available for the war effort.  So, in 1942, the U.S. Mint settled on a composition of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese and introduced it by mid-year.  The new composition eliminated nickel entirely and also had the benefit of being easier to strike, as the silver imparted a softness to the coin.  War era nickels are hence prized not only for their silver content, but also because the traditionally hard to strike “front step” portion of the coin was usually found in good relief.  The change was short lived however, as the 1945 year would be the last of the “war era” nickels. They can be denoted easily by the large mint mark over the Monticello on the reverse.

In 1946 the nickel reverted back to the standard composition of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel and remained the familiar coin first introduced 18 years earlier, and would remain that way for half a century more.  In 2004 the first design change, apart from mint mark placement and the adding of Schlag’s initials in 1966, was seen on the nickel commemorating the Lewis and Clark Journey, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson.  For 2004, two reverse designs, one the “Peace” and “Keel Boat” designs, and in 2005 a new obverse designed by Joe Fitzgerald, and two new reverse designs, the “Bison” and “Ocean View”.  Because the legislation enacted to change the Lewis and Clark inspired coins also stipulated that the image of Jefferson and Monticello return to the coin, in 2006 a new Jefferson appeared joined with the familiar Monticello again.