USA Coin Album: Liberty Head Nickels — Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 12/11/2012

The year 2012 marks a century since the last Liberty Head nickels were coined for circulation, and this anniversary seems like a fitting occasion to take a look at this popular coin series.

It’s been about 50 years since any examples were to be seen in change, and even at that time they were quite rarely found. For most collectors this is a coin known only from dealers’ inventories or the occasional old hoard that may turn up.

In the 1980s I put together a complete set in About Uncirculated condition, and this proved to be a very appealing grade that didn’t bust the budget. Such coins were out of the spotlight at the time, though the key dates have since risen dramatically in price. I did not benefit from this development, however, as I’d sold my set to a dealer for about its cost during the late 1990s when my interest turned more to world coins, and this was just before the key dates began their run-up. As I did with most popular United States coins series, I later put together another set in lesser grades, with most pieces being Fine or Very Fine. This set is currently lacking only the 1886 issue, but that will be added at some point. None of the coins in this series are truly rare, and that’s one of the selling points in assembling a set of these handsome nickels.

The Liberty Head nickel was conceived in 1881 as part of a proposed three-denomination upgrade to America’s minor coinage in which the cent, three-cent piece and five-cent piece were to have matching designs and compositions. It was planned to replace the cent’s bronze alloy with the 75% copper and 25% nickel alloy then standard for the other two coins and to make its diameter smaller than that of the three-cent piece.

Pattern coins dated 1881 were produced of each denomination, and these bore similar designs. Their obverses displayed the same bust of Liberty by Charles Barber now familiar as the adopted type of 1883, while each coin’s reverse featured a wreath encircling the coin’s value expressed in Roman numerals. Because these coins were to be introduced simultaneously, it was not imperative to include the word CENT or CENTS on them, as this would be understood in that context. Unfortunately, only the five-cent piece was actually produced, and omission of the word CENTS quickly proved to be a problem indeed.

Finalizing of the design elements delayed production a few weeks, and in the mean time the Philadelphia Mint was compelled to strike nearly 1-1/2 million of the old type Shield nickels early in 1883. Once the new dies were ready for the presses, more than five million Liberty Head nickels lacking the word CENTS were produced, the first coins entering circulation February 1. It was not long before reports began to surface of the coins being gold-plated and passed as five-dollar pieces, the more determined con men even reeding the coins’ edges to make this deception complete. Since the public was not yet familiar with the new nickels, and there were no accompanying cents and three-cent pieces of the same design, it was only natural that some persons would be duped in this manner. Production continued while the Mint scrambled to come up with a solution.

As was often the case with United States coins, one of the patterns for a replacement reverse was clearly superior to the design adopted. On these pattern coins (Judd Nos. 1717-1719) the word CENTS appears on a scroll superimposed over the Roman numeral V. All of the other design elements remained as they were. Perhaps fearing that the word was too vulnerable to wear, the Mint rejected this concept and instead relocated the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM to make way for CENTS in letters the same size as UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The Latin legend was wrought in much tinier letters and suffered the indignity of being squeezed into a slender space directly above the wreath. The wreath itself, formerly centered within the reverse, was lowered a bit to accommodate the Latin inscription, which should have been simply omitted altogether.

Mass production of the revised nickels was underway by the end of March, and more than 16 million Liberty Head nickels with CENTS were struck during the remainder of 1883. This changeover prompted an immediate speculative frenzy in the first issue lacking CENTS, and vast numbers of these coins were preserved uncirculated or just lightly worn by a public that assumed they were being recalled by the government. Such a recall was never contemplated, but this did nothing to stop the rumors and hoarding.

For generations afterward, dealers were plagued by persons inquiring as to the value of their rare, no CENTS nickels. The passing of time has instead proved that the revised issue of 1883 is far more scarce in all grades, as no one thought to preserve these coins.

While the Liberty Head nickel series never again engendered the same level of excitement as it did at its outset, there’s plenty to interest the numismatist. I’ll look at the remaining issues from 1884 through 1912 in next month’s column.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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