Liberty Head Nickels
At the dawn of the 20th century, the United States Mint recognized the need for a fresh and innovative design for the nickel. For nearly five decades, the Shield Nickel had adorned the five-cent piece since 1866, but it was time for a change. In 1911, the Mint took a remarkable step by organizing a design competition to select a new face for the nickel. Among the many artists and designers who participated, James Earle Fraser stood out with his unique vision.
Fraser, known for his proficiency in capturing Native American and Western themes in his artwork, submitted a design that would become legendary. His vision for the nickel featured a powerful and dignified Native American on the obverse, clad in a feathered headdress and gazing to the right. On the reverse, a majestic buffalo, also known as a bison, stood atop a raised mound, captured with exquisite detail.
The Liberty Head Nickel made its debut in 1913, and it was an immediate hit with both collectors and the general public. Fraser’s design was not only visually striking but also deeply evocative. The Native American represented the rich heritage and cultural diversity of America, while the buffalo symbolized the rugged wilderness and the rapidly disappearing frontier of the West. This design was not merely a coin; it was a piece of art that told a story of America’s past.
However, despite its artistic brilliance, the coin wasn’t without its flaws. One of the major issues was the absence of a raised rim, leaving the coin’s design vulnerable to wear and rapid deterioration. Additionally, the denomination “FIVE CENTS” was perched on a raised mound on the reverse, which made it prone to wear and made the inscription difficult to read.
The U.S. Mint, ever responsive to the needs of the coinage, addressed these issues in 1913 by making significant modifications to the design. The most notable of these changes was the addition of a raised rim on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. This rim not only protected the design but also enhanced the durability of the coin, making it more resistant to the wear and tear of circulation. The Mint also relocated the denomination from the raised mound to the bottom of the reverse side, further aiding in preserving the coin’s readability.
Another alteration was the enlargement of the mintmark, which indicated the Mint where the coin was produced. This change improved the visibility of the mintmark, allowing collectors and enthusiasts to easily identify the coin’s origin.
Despite these changes, the Liberty Head Nickel still faced challenges related to durability and wear, primarily due to the softness of the metal used in its production. The coin was struck from a composition of 75% copper and 25% nickel, which made it susceptible to rapid deterioration. Over time, as more Liberty Head Nickels circulated, their details began to fade, and many coins showed signs of heavy wear.
Nevertheless, the Liberty Head Nickel continued to maintain its popularity among collectors, numismatists, and the general public. Its unique design, coupled with the changes made to enhance its durability, kept it in circulation for 25 years. During this time, the coin became a beloved symbol of American numismatics, standing as a testament to the marriage of art and currency.
In 1938, the Liberty Head Nickel’s long-standing reign came to an end as it was replaced by the Jefferson Nickel. The new design, created by Felix Schlag, featured a profile portrait of President Thomas Jefferson on the obverse and Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia estate, on the reverse. This marked the end of an era for the Liberty Head Nickel, which had left an indelible mark on the history of American coinage.
While the Liberty Head Nickel was officially retired from circulation, it never faded from the collective memory of collectors and coin enthusiasts. In fact, it continued to be a sought-after piece in the world of numismatics. The coin’s distinctive design, historical significance, and its status as the last five-cent piece to be composed of copper and nickel further fueled its desirability among collectors.
Today, the Liberty Head Nickel is highly valued by numismatists and collectors. It has transcended its original purpose as a medium of exchange to become a treasured artifact that bridges the gap between art and currency. The coin’s historical context, artistic merit, and limited availability contribute to its enduring appeal.
One of the key factors that make the Liberty Head Nickel so captivating is the representation of a Native American on the obverse. The Native American is depicted with great dignity, featuring a feathered headdress and a noble gaze. This image carries a cultural and historical significance that resonates with many Americans. At the time of the coin’s production, the United States was still grappling with issues related to Native American rights, and the depiction of a Native American on a widely circulated coin was a nod to the heritage and contributions of Native American communities. It served as a symbol of respect and recognition at a time when such acknowledgment was not widespread.
The reverse side of the coin features an equally iconic image of a buffalo. The buffalo, or bison, holds a prominent place in American history and culture. It was a symbol of the vast wilderness and untamed frontier that characterized the American West during the 19th century. The buffalo also had deep cultural and spiritual significance to many Native American tribes, further reinforcing the coin’s ties to the nation’s indigenous heritage.
As a result of these symbolic elements, the Liberty Head Nickel transcends its role as a piece of currency. It becomes a small canvas that tells a complex and multifaceted story of American history and identity. This aspect is what makes the coin so intriguing to collectors and historians alike. Each Liberty Head Nickel is a tangible piece of the American narrative, carrying with it a reflection of the nation’s past, its aspirations, and its evolving cultural values.
In addition to its cultural significance, the Liberty Head Nickel’s rarity adds to its allure. The coin’s long history of circulation, coupled with the technical challenges it faced, resulted in a relatively small number of well-preserved specimens. As a result, finding a Liberty Head Nickel in excellent condition is a challenging endeavor for collectors.
The Liberty Head Nickel’s status as the last of its kind also adds to its desirability. In 1942, during World War II, the composition of the five-cent piece was altered due to the strategic importance of nickel in the war effort. The new Jefferson Nickel, composed of a combination of copper, silver, and manganese, marked the end of the era of the copper-nickel five-cent piece. This transition only enhances the Liberty Head Nickel’s position as a cherished relic from a bygone era.
Collectors are drawn to the thrill of the hunt for rare and pristine Liberty Head Nickels. The scarcity of high-quality specimens on the market drives the demand, making these coins valuable additions to coin collections. The allure of the chase, combined with the historical and artistic significance of the coin, creates a dynamic and passionate market for Liberty Head Nickels.
The Liberty Head Nickel has been celebrated in various ways throughout the years. In 2001, the United States Mint paid tribute to this iconic coin by issuing the Buffalo Silver Dollar, featuring a design reminiscent of Fraser’s classic work. This commemorative coin was released to mark the 100th anniversary of the Buffalo Nickel and was produced in both proof and uncirculated versions. The Buffalo Silver Dollar, like its predecessor, honors the Native American and the buffalo, paying homage to the enduring legacy of the Liberty Head Nickel.
The Liberty Head Nickel’s journey through time continues to captivate and inspire. It stands as a testament to the harmonious blend of art and history within the realm of numismatics. The coin’s enduring popularity, cultural significance, and artistic excellence ensure its place in the pantheon of American coinage. With each Liberty Head Nickel, we are reminded of the power of design and symbolism to leave a lasting impact on our collective memory, and of the enduring appeal of a coin that tells the story of America’s past and its enduring values.