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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.


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