Dancing with Dates, Part Two

Posted on 11/18/2008

Engravers place their own stamp on early 20th Century Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels.

Last month’s column included examples of how the style of date on Lincoln cents has varied over the course of this series. Similar inconsistencies have occurred on other 20th Century coin types, too. All new designs adopted since 1907 have featured their initial date of coining as an integral part of the artist’s model, with only the numerals that changed having to be revised by hand. Thus, through 1999 the style of the leading numerals, 1 and 9, were unlikely to change, but this didn’t prevent the Mint’s engravers from taking some liberties with the remaining two numerals.

For the Buffalo nickel, the style of date largely remained consistent, with but a few exceptions. The date 1913, as sculpted by James E. Fraser, was a bit faint, so the 1914-15 nickels retained its style while being cut a bit deeper into the master die than on the first year’s coinage. The nickels dated 1916 featured a new obverse hub with sharpened lettering. The date was similar in style and relief to the 1914-15 coins, but the engraver made the numeral 6 taller than the other three. The 1917-19 coins are nicely matched in style, though from 1918 onward the Buffalo nickel’s date was consistently cut to a greater depth in the die to improve its wearing quality. Its tendency to become obscured through wear was evident by 1918, and this was the mint’s solution. As collectors well know, this did not solve the problem.

The nickels of the 1920s are fairly consistent in date style, though the 1921 issues are unique in that they have serifs at the top of both 1’s, while the bottoms of these numerals are slightly flared; all other years have sans-serif, straight-sided 1’s. In 1928 the numeral 8 displayed a smaller loop at top than at bottom, while the 1918 date had a symmetrical 8. In 1938 the entire 8 was again proportional but quite narrow overall.

A nuisance for the Mint’s engravers from 1920 through the end of the Buffalo series was that the final numeral typically overlapped the Indian’s hair ribbon. This had not been a problem during the teens, because the narrowness of the third numeral provided sufficient room for the fourth.

Buffalo Nickels of the 1930s are likewise fairly consistent in date style, though there are two exceptions. The numeral 3 used throughout these years had a rounded top, as opposed to the flat top employed for 1913 and 1923. This numeral was even wider than the 2 used during the 1920s, causing greater intrusion into the hair ribbon. The Mint generally ignored this problem, though in 1937-38 the numeral 3 was slimmed down drastically from that employed in 1930-36.

The Jefferson nickel as adopted in 1938 featured a style of lettering simplified from the highly modernistic font originally submitted by sculptor Felix Schlag. Perhaps this is what permitted the Mint’s engravers to maintain a fairly consistent style throughout this series’ long run. There are, however, occasional oddities. For example, numeral 6 on the 1946 and 1956 nickels had smaller loops than the accompanying 9, while the nickels coined during the 1960s had loops of equal size.

1948 nickels featured a much wider 4 than in other years from that decade, this numeral reverting to its 1940-47 size in 1949. As in 1938, the 8 has a top circle smaller than the bottom one, but the numeral is broader overall than the earlier issue. The 1958 nickels repeat the 1948 style, as do all later dates ending in 8.

1943 and 1945 nickels had final numerals that displayed sharply curving, sickle-like tails. For all the coinage of the 1950s, however, a 5 was used that had a hanging tail. The 3 used in 1953 likewise had this hanging tail, as did all subsequent dates ending in a 3.

Starting in 1971, the Mint adopted a new obverse hub for the Jefferson nickel every few years at irregular intervals. The overall size of this coin’s date was reduced at that time, though numerals of complementary style have been used with nearly perfect consistency. Exceptions may be found in the wide 4 of 1948, which returned in 1974 only to be abandoned again ten years later. The broad 0 seen on nickels dated 1940 through 1990 gave way to a noticeably narrower edition on the coinage of 2000. In recent years, changes to the entire design of the five-cent piece have resulted in some more dramatic differences that don’t qualify for a direct comparison.

If you’ve read this far without becoming benumbed by so much trivia, you may be wondering where the purpose lies in such a detailed study. It actually serves two purposes: One is to reinforce the theme presented last month that engravers are individuals who like to place their own stamp in the only way they can with an existing design; the second is to encourage readers to look more closely at their own coins in an exercise that will train the eye to such subtle distinctions. A professional numismatist knows how much even the most familiar coins can vary, and this will make you too a keener observer of the commonplace.

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

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