The Wartime Silver "Nickels" of 1942-45, Part One

Posted on 3/17/2008

David Lange explores the changes in U.S. coinage that resulted from the upheavals of the two World Wars.

The two great wars of the 20th century both witnessed radical changes to the coinage of many nations. During World War I (1914-18), these changes were prompted primarily by inflation, which was quite severe despite the attempted institution of wage and price controls. In Europe, silver coins were quickly hoarded, and their place was taken by base metal issues either during or shortly after the war. Gold coins likewise disappeared from general circulation, and most Western nations — the USA included — suspended their coinage after 1916-17. Substituted for gold worldwide were banknotes having various degrees of government backing. Attempts to reinstitute a gold standard coinage during the 1920s were mostly unsuccessful, triggering economic deflation and labor unrest in Britain and other countries. The world’s economies never truly recovered from World War I, and even the USA was compelled to abandon the gold standard by 1933.

During World War II (1939-45), the threat to familiar coinage was not so much inflation as the curtailed supplies of critical metals. The hoarding of precious metals was, however, practiced by various governments in anticipation of their probable hoarding by individuals. Many European nations deliberately abandoned silver coinage once the war had begun and replaced it with base metals of varying utility. Nickel and bronze were desirable substitutes of proven durability, but these too often gave way to very unsuitable metals such as iron and zinc.

The United States was blessed with an abundance of mineral resources, including seemingly inexhaustible supplies of silver and copper. Our wartime necessity coinage was thus a less radical departure from the norm, though the adoption of zinc-coated steel for the cent was a change that soon proved to be unacceptable to the public and was later reversed.

A less onerous alteration was made to the five-cent piece, popularly known as the “nickel.” It was the federal government’s position that this metal was critical to the war effort in hardening armor plate, and that was true in a literal sense. But to imply that the amount of nickel employed in coining five-cent pieces required its complete substitution rings false when the actual figures are examined. The standard composition of the five-cent piece is only 25 percent nickel, and the amount of that metal that would have been used for all of the five-cent pieces coined during 1942-45 was but a fraction of the amount mined in the USA and Canada during that same period.

As with the elimination of copper from the cent, it appears then that the removal of nickel from the five-cent piece was done more for the sake of propaganda than for its practical value. During World War II, Americans were called upon to make all kinds of sacrifices in both their diets and their lifestyles. The changes made to our coinage during the war years were highly visible reminders of the need for such sacrifice, even though they were statistically insignificant.

An act passed March 27, 1942 permitted the Treasury to alter the composition of the five-cent piece for the purpose of eliminating nickel. An alloy of equal parts copper and silver was suggested, but the Mint Director was permitted to vary this balance and apply any base metals thought to be suitable. This proved to be an important provision, as it was soon discovered that the alloy of .500 silver and .500 copper, though acceptable in most respects, would fail to pass the discrimination devices within the nation’s thousands of coin-operated vending machines and turnstiles. The magnetism provided by the 25 percent nickel of the standard five-cent piece was lacking in both silver and copper, but it was determined that adding a bit of manganese to the mix would replicate the electro-magnetic signature of the pre-war coins. The composition ultimately approved was thus .560 copper, .350 silver, and .090 manganese.

All of these delays meant that the wartime composition was not actually coined for circulation until October 1 or October 8 (official sources provide both dates alternately, though the later one is cited in most numismatic texts). The authority for such altered coinage was set to expire on December 31, 1945, and it could not be imagined by Congress at the time that this date would coincide almost perfectly with the war’s end just a few months earlier.

When this composition was adopted, it was expected that the emergency coinage would be withdrawn following the war’s end, so a prominent distinguishing mark was deemed necessary. The Mint achieved this by greatly enlarging the size of the coins’ mintmarks and by placing them within the field of the reverse directly above Monticello’s dome. In an unprecedented move for a United States coin, the normally unmarked pieces made at Philadelphia carried a large ‘P’ mintmark to make them equally recognizable.

Only the mints at Philadelphia and Denver struck 1942-dated nickels of the standard alloy, this production ending several months before adoption of the revised composition. The new issue was then coined only at the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints during the closing months of 1942. For the years 1943-45, however, all three mints struck wartime silver “nickels” in huge numbers. Indeed, there are no rarities for this series, other than a few scattered varieties. These will be examined in next month’s column, along with a look at the wartime coins’ role in circulation.

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

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