Lies! Corruption! Scandal! Who would have thought a simple 5-cent coin could be surrounded by so much controversy? The arguments over the 1909 Lincoln Head Penny were tame compared to the subterfuge associated with the production of the nation’s first “nickel.”
Civil War Hoarding Leads to Coin Shortages
Gold and silver coins nearly disappeared from circulation during the Civil War as people hoarded them against fears of economic disaster. The government (of the North, depending on your point of view) issued paper notes in fractional-dollar denominations, but they were very low-quality and unpopular, commonly referred to as “shinplasters.” Among the widely hoarded coins was the 90% silver half dime, the five-cent coin in production from the first U.S. mintage in 1792.
As the war ended, the Treasury saw a need for a new 5-cent piece, one made of a less valuable metal than silver. Encouraged by the success of the copper-nickel 3-cent piece, Mint Director James Pollock recommended that the new coin be made of the same 75% copper, 25% nickel alloy. The proposal was enthusiastically promoted to Congress by industrialist Joseph Wharton (Bethlehem Steel, Wharton College of Business), who had a near-monopoly on nickel mining in the U.S.
Patriotic or Just Plain Ugly?
Having been misled into approving the portrait of Currency Bureau chief Spencer Clark on the three-cent paper note (they assumed that “Clark” referred to the explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark), an infuriated Congress forbade the portrayal of any living person on U.S. coins or currency. Under pressure to get the coin into circulation as quickly as possible, chief engraver James B. Longacre modified his design for the two-cent coin, choosing for its face (obverse) a shield with 13 vertical stripes draped with laurel branches (the Greek symbol of victory) and topped by what seemed to be a medieval cross. Two crossed arrows symbolizing readiness to defend lurked behind the bottom of the shield, only their tips and feathers visible. Numismatic author Q. David Bowers called it one of the most patriotic designs in American coinage. The American Journal of Numismatics disagreed, labeling it “the ugliest of all known coins.”
An alternate design with a portrait of recently-assassinated president Lincoln was shelved so as not to antagonize the South. The reverse contained a large numeral 5 surrounded by thirteen stars separated by rays. “United States of America” was inscribed around the coin’s top circumference, with “Cents” on the bottom. The rays between the stars were removed after the second year’s minting due to production problems. Critics also suggested the rays between the stars were reminiscent of the Confederacy’s Stars and Bars.
A Shady Deal?
Influential nickel magnate Wharton wasn’t as kind as Bowers when it came to critiquing the coin’s face design, either, saying it looked like a tombstone overhung by weeping willows. But his disdain for the artwork didn’t keep him from being delighted when the coin’s weight was increased to 5 grams by his friends in Congress, supposedly to conform to metric standards, but definitely allowing Wharton to sell more of the metal to the mint.
Haste Makes Waste—And Adds Collectible Value
The heavier nickel coins proved to be difficult to work with; dies were wearing out quickly and even breaking. In the rush to keep new dies coming, their quality varied considerably, and dies that survived were reused without authorization, creating over-dates and variations at a much higher rate than other series of coins. Production also varied considerably over the coin’s run, with exceptionally low numbers minted in 1879-1881, making them the rarest of the non-proof issues of the Shield Nickel.
The Legacy of The Shield
The Shield Nickel was replaced in 1883 by the Liberty Head Nickel, but not before adding a colorful chapter to the history of U.S. coinage—and giving us the name by which all U.S. 5-cent coins have been known since—the nickel.
The Great American Coin Company® is pleased to offer historic Shield Nickel 5-Cent coins to add to your collection. They’re an important part of any portfolio and are an inexpensive way to launch a beginner on a rewarding, life-long interest in coin collecting. They make great novelty gifts that capture an important time in U.S. history, too.
The Great American Coin Company® offers a wide selection of collectible U.S. coins and paper money as well as currency from around the world. We keep adding unique collectibles as they become available, so be sure to visit us frequently. And while you’re there, be sure to visit our blog for interesting and timely articles about currency and precious metals.