USA Coin Album: The Last Buffalo Nickel

Posted on 8/10/2021

A single mint produced Fraser’s design in 1938, but the coins were hard to get at the time for several reasons.

On June 15, 1938, the Associated Press ran a short piece from Denver announcing the end of America’s most iconic coin:

“That’s the last of the Buffaloes,” Mark A. Skinner, superintendent of the United States Mint here, remarked as he broke up the casts [dies] used in manufacturing 350,000 buffalo nickels. Skinner is awaiting arrival of new dies for the Jefferson model nickel.

Having achieved its statutory minimum production of 25 years, this coin that debuted to great acclaim in 1913 was quickly retired in favor of a new type that would continue the nation’s progression toward honoring great leaders on its coinage. It was announced early in 1938 that Jefferson would supersede the Indian/Bison pairing on the five-cent piece, but there was some uncertainty whether the current design would be struck at all that year. This question was answered in a Treasury flyer which appeared in the early spring:

Buffalo nickels of 1938 have been coined only by the United States Mint in Denver. Collector may obtain one or two specimens thereof from the Treasurer of the United States, Washington, D. C. It is not expected that 1938 Buffalo nickels will be coined by the United States Mints in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The two-coin limit was a standard practice for all mail orders at that time, with the Treasurer offering any available issues at face value plus the cost of postage. It would be another ten years before complete sets of each year’s coinage were packaged and sold on an annual basis.

Though this 1938-D Buffalo nickel is fairly well struck,
die erosion is just starting to appear on the Indian’s neck and hair.
Click images to enlarge

A total of 7,020,000 1938-D Buffalo nickels were produced before the June suspension. While noticeably lower than Denver’s annual production for the three years preceding, this nevertheless should have been enough coins to make this issue readily available in circulation. That was not the case, however, as collectors found to their frustration. The 1938-D nickels were actually being rationed, a fact reported by the Chicago Coin Club’s newsletter and then summarized by The Numismatist’s Washington correspondent, Harry X. Boosel:

$500 worth of them were received by the Loop banks and they were being passed out two at a time and it was necessary to sign your name and give your address.

Boosel further observed that while the cash room at the Treasury’s DC headquarters typically offered only Philadelphia Mint coins for collectors and maintained the two-coin limit, it actually had complete rolls available of the 1938-D Buffalo nickels. Since Boosel was a frequent visitor to that facility, he may have served as a conduit for dissemination of this issue in its early weeks.

There was a reason why the new nickels were not being widely distributed, and it’s reflected in the lower than usual mintages for all denominations during 1938. After starting to climb its way out of the deep economic depression of 1929-33, America underwent a short but fierce recession during 1937-38, and this caused a plunge in the demand for fresh coins and correspondingly lower mintages. In fact, it appears that the seven million 1938-D Buffalo nickels were not needed in commerce at all.

Writing in the September issue of The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, columnist Roy Hill of San Francisco reported:

Recently some 1938 Denver nickels dribbled into circulation here, but lately none have been picked up. There are plenty of 1936 ‘S’ to be found, but no 1937 [S] as yet.

If banks had not even gotten around to distributing 1937-S nickels by the late summer of 1938, it’s no surprise that the 1938-D coins were so scarce at the time. Collectors would echo this same frustration regarding the 1938 Jefferson nickels of all three mints, which did not become readily available from circulation until late in 1939.

Late in that transitional year of 1938 the Denver Mint struck 5,376,000 Jefferson nickels.
Click images to enlarge

By the time that rolls 1938-D Buffalo nickels were available from banks, collectors were waiting for them, and this issue was widely hoarded in Mint State condition. Conversely, worn examples were always slightly scarce, and this writer was not able to locate one during the mid 1960s, a time when Buffalo nickels still circulated. To this day, examples are readily available in gem condition, with NGC having certified 25,252 coins as MS 66, some 3,519 as MS 67 and 67 superb gems as MS 68!

The typical 1938-D Buffalo nickel displays dazzling luster, a fact in keeping with the generally high quality of most coins from the Denver Mint at that time. Many, however, also reveal rather worn dies, with heavy erosion lines seen most often at the back of the Indian’s neck and the rearmost of the bison’s legs. Such die wear has little impact on certified grading, but since this issue is so readily available in high grades, collectors may as well hold out for a coin struck from fresh dies.

Variety FS-502 shows the mintmark repunched to the southeast of its first impression.
Click images to enlarge

On FS-511 an underlying letter S is visible, along with one or possibly two duplicated letters D.
Click images to enlarge

Several varieties are known for 1938-D Buffalo nickels having repunched mintmarks (1938-D/D) and even overmintmarks (1938-D/S). These varieties were not reported until 1961 and thus would have become rare had this issue circulated extensively, but the vast hoarding of 1938-D Buffalo nickels in roll quantities guaranteed that even the varieties are fairly plentiful in high grades.

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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