USA Coin Album: The Nickels of 1883

Posted on 5/11/2021

Three designs appeared in a single year.

Collectors of United States coins are fascinated with transitional years, those having more than one design for a particular denomination. Examples include 1857 Braided Hair and Flying Eagle cents, 1916 Barber and Mercury dimes, and 1938 Buffalo and Jefferson nickels. For sheer drama, however, few years can beat 1883, when two major types and one important sub-type were issued for the five-cent piece.

All 1883 Shield nickels were coined during January of that year.
Click images to enlarge

The copper-nickel five-cent piece, called simply a “nickel” by the public, was then still a fairly new entry in America’s line-up of coins. First struck in 1866, its obverse features a wreath-draped Union Shield that critics derided as a “tombstone.” The reverse is comprised of a large numeral 5 surrounded by 13 stars. A tiny date below the shield appears to be hiding in shame, and this coin design had no supporters at all, save for nickel magnate Joseph Wharton. His Pennsylvania mines comprised the only significant source of nickel in the United States, and he was a tireless promoter of that metal, advocating particularly for its use in coinage.

Despite its shortcomings the nickel was a popular coin that quickly supplanted the old silver half dime in commerce. Coinage was heavy from 1866-69, when a glut developed and production slumped throughout the 1870s. By 1882 additional coins were needed, and the Mint struck more than 11 million pieces. Though heavy demand continued into the following year, coinage of Shield nickels was cut off at 1,451,500 pieces when a new type replaced it early in 1883.

Joseph Wharton had the ear of Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden, and it was under Wharton’s influence that the bronze cent was projected to be replaced with one of 75% copper and 25% nickel, the same composition then used for three-cent and five-cent pieces. In 1881 Loudon directed Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber to prepare new, matching designs for all three denominations.

The resulting patterns feature the head of Liberty now familiar to us from the nickels of 1883-1912, and this obverse was paired a reverse displaying the denomination in Roman numerals within a wreath of American agricultural products. As the US Mint had become enamored of the Metric System around this time, the weights were to be proportional Metric figures of five grams, three grams and 1.5 grams (evidently, a one-gram cent was too small to be practical).

This 1883 No CENTS nickel is weakly struck at right on both obverse and reverse,
suggesting that the dies were not in parallel.
Click images to enlarge

Cooler heads prevailed, and all changes to the cent and three-cent piece were abandoned, while work on refining Barber’s design continued for the five-cent piece alone (replacement of the Shield type was deemed necessary, as its dies failed quickly in use). Snowden approved Barber’s finished models January 8, 1883, and production of the new Liberty Head nickels commenced January 30.

At 21.2 millimeters diameter, these coins were slightly larger than the 20.5mm Shield issue. This was an aid in striking the coins, which had been proportionally too thick for the smaller diameter. The Liberty Head nickels were well received, with a curious public reportedly paying as much as 20 cents to obtain an example from those who had already secured a supply. The US Mint seemed to have hit a home run, and some 5,474,300 examples were produced before a problem arose and coining was abruptly halted.

It was noted above that the coin’s denomination was expressed as simply a Roman numeral V, indicating a value of 5. Inclusion of the word CENTS was deemed unnecessary when the design was conceived in 1881, as matching one-cent and three-cent coins clearly would have implied that the value of their larger brother was five cents.

Unfortunately, the nickel corresponded almost exactly in size to the half eagle, or five-dollar gold piece. Con men quickly reeded the edges of the new nickels and gold plated them to pass as five dollars instead of five cents. While tales of this enterprise have been exaggerated over the years, even just a few instances were enough to prompt the Mint to suspend production and send the new nickel back for retooling.

Though much sharper overall, this example is weakly struck at the left corn cob above letters
CE of CENTS, often a problem area on Liberty Head nickels.
Click images to enlarge

Chief Engraver Barber made a quick fix by adding the words CENTS below the wreath bow. This displaced the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM, which he then crowded into the small space above the wreath, where its tiny letters would thereafter remain intrusive and unnecessary. Nevertheless, production resumed, and more than 16 million nickels bearing CENTS were struck by year’s end.

Rumors were spread that the first edition would be recalled by the government, but of course this never happened. Still, hoarding of the “No CENTS” pieces was widespread, making this issue forever common. Choice mint state pieces can be purchased for less than $100, and gems are not much more than that. Indeed, the NGC Price Guide lists 1883 No CENTS nickels at just $55 for MS 63 and $235 for MS 65. These figures are lower than for any other issue in the series. In contrast, the 1883 With CENTS nickel, with a mintage three times as high, is valued at $235 and $500 in those same grades.

Next month I’ll take a look at some of the many varieties known for the Shield and Liberty Head nickels of 1883.

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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