Mr. Monetary's Blog

03 Jun 2021

A Brief History of 20th Century Nickels

Coins-United States | Mr. Monetary

For this blog post I have primarily chosen to discuss nickels that were minted in the 20th and early 21st centuries. I have not included earlier nickels due to the large amount of information needed to be covered(Hence the title of my blog: "A Brief History of 20th Century Nickels).

In the 20th century, nickels had many unique variations. Through the wars and times of peace, the nickel evolved into the modern coin we see today.

The common nickel from the years 1900-1913 was the Liberty Head variation. This coin was first minted in 1883. It had Liberty’s head on one side, and “V” on the reverse. It did not have “cents” on it though. This consequently led to gold-plated counterfeits being produced and passed off as five dollars. The nickel remained this way only for a year, it was then changed to have “cents” under the “V”.

Starting in 1913, the Liberty Head nickel was replaced with the Indian Head nickel. Designed by James Earl Fraser, the coin showed a Native American chief and a buffalo on the reverse. It had two types: The first showed a buffalo standing on a small hill; The second variation had the buffalo, but it was standing on a flat plain. The buffalo on the obverse was actually modelled after the real buffalo, “Black Diamond”. This lasted until 1938 when the Jefferson nickel was implemented.

A competition was held in 1938 for the next design. Felix Schlag won the contest against 390 other contestants. His design showcased Jefferson’s portrait on the obverse, and Monticello on the reverse. By 1942, the composition of the nickel had changed to a silver alloy, instead of a nickel one. It was altered to 35% silver, 56% copper, and 8% Manganese. This was because nickel was needed as an important war metal. It resumed its prewar composition in 1946. In 1966, Felix Schlag initials were added below Jefferson's neck. The design was remodeled in 1971, 1972, 1977, and 1986 to strengthen the design. The mintmark was also moved to the obverse starting in 1968; During this operation, the exact location of the mintmark varied a bit. One instance is the 1975-D, where the mintmark is located by the date.

The Jefferson Portrait design lasted until 2004, when the Westward Journey nickels were introduced. These nickels commemorated the bicentennial of the Louisiana purchase and the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Some of these were modeled or adapted after Indian peace medals and were presented to Indian chiefs as a show of goodwill. The designs were the Peace Medal, Keelboat, American Bison, and Ocean in View.

In 2006, the nickel was returned to the Jefferson Portrait. Some modifications were made though. For instance, Jefferson is now facing forward, whereas Jefferson was facing to the side on the old one. “Liberty” was also written horizontally and above the date and mintmark, unlike the other, where “Liberty” was written along the edge.

I may publish a related article discussing earlier nickels and their varieties, but thank you for taking the time to read.



Level 5

Thanks for the lesson. I like Nickels too.

Kevin Leab

Level 4

I love Jefferson nickels....unfortunately the only ones I have are in my pocket....I sold all of my collection about 10 years ago but I'm catching back up to where I used to be....only now I'm collecting different series than I used to. I will put together another Jefferson set soon.

I. R. Bama

Level 5

Really good blog, thank you!


Level 6

Very nicely done. I enjoyed this blog. You are right, it is very hard to include everything in a blog. You did a great job here. Thanks.

It's Mokie

Level 6

Nice Job, enjoyed the read.


Level 6

My favorite the Buffalo Nickel hands down ; ) Really enjoyed your blog... lots of great information! ; )


Level 7

Thanks for the blog. Fraser used three different Indians to get the one portrait. There were two types type one and type two. Type one was on a mound and type two Black Diamond is on a line. Just put that in. It's a great set and one you can collect today. Thanks for all your work. !!


Level 5

Very nice history of 20th century nickels. Thanks


Level 6

Jefferson Nickels were the first coins I collected. They are still dear to me.

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