The Jefferson Nickel was introduced in 1938 after the Buffalo Nickel completed a 25-year run in circulation. Not only is the Jefferson design the longest running Nickel series but it’s also still in production today. During its long and successful history, the coin has undergone various design changes but always features America’s third president.
Designed by Felix O. Schlag, the original Jefferson Nickel obverse depicts third United States President Thomas Jefferson, facing left. He is wearing a peruke wig on his head and dressed in a coat from the 1800’s. Jefferson is facing the inscription IN GOD WE TRUST to the left, with LIBERTY and the date situated opposite the back of his head to the right. On the original reverse is Jefferson’s home Monticello and the engraving MONTICELLO below. Underneath this text is FIVE CENTS and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. At the very top of the reverse is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Jefferson Nickels were struck at the mint facilities of Philadelphia (no mintmark until 1980), Denver (D) and San Francisco (S). It’s important to note that mintmarks were not displayed on these coins in 1965, 1966 and 1967 because of a nationwide coin shortage. From 1938 to 1964, mintmarks were located next to the reverse image of Monticello on the right. Pieces dated 1968 onwards will show a mintmark below the date on the obverse.
As the Buffalo Nickel had been struck for 25 years by 1938, the coin’s design could be changed without the Secretary of the Treasury needing authorization from Congress. It was quickly decided that an open competition should be held to find new designs for the five-cent coin, with the winner receiving a $1,000 prize. As 1938 was also the year of the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, the Mint requested that all participants must include the third President on the obverse and Monticello on the reverse.
In April 1938, three sculptors and mint director Nellie Tayloe Ross judged nearly 400 entries. After just four days, German-born Felix O. Schlag received the news that he was the winner of the contest. Schlag studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and moved to the United States in 1929. One month later, the Mint requested Schlag make some changes to the lettering and his reverse design, which he completed in July. Sadly, his wife passed away shortly after this and he had to use his prize money to pay for her funeral.
When the United States officially joined World War II in December 1941, many commodities were rationed including nickel, which was mainly needed for producing armor. In March 1942, Congress ordered the removal of nickel from the five-cent coin. The Mint began striking Jefferson Nickels from an alloy of silver, copper and manganese from October 8, 1942. Emergency World War II Jefferson Nickels featuring Schlag’s original designs were minted until the end of 1945.
In order to identify the coins as “War Nickels”, the Mint placed large mintmarks above Monticello on the reverse. It was also the first ever time that the P (Philadelphia) mintmark was used on an American coin. While the Mint hoped that all these pieces would be withdrawn from circulation as soon as World War II was over, some of the coins were hoarded because they were composed of 35% silver.
Schlag’s original designs remained on the Jefferson Nickel for more than 60 years but a small change was made in 1966 when his initials were added to the obverse. All Jefferson Nickels minted from 1966 feature Schlag’s initials FS just beneath Jefferson’s neck.
To celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the U.S. Mint was authorized by the American 5-Cent Coin Design Community Act of 2003 to issue four unique Jefferson Nickels. In 2004, the Mint released two coins with different reverses but with Schlag’s original obverse. Mint engraver Norman E. Nemeth designed the first reverse, featuring Jefferson’s Indian Peace Medal. The second reverse was the creation of engraver Alfred Maletsky and depicts the keel boat used by the expedition.
In 2005, two other Jefferson Nickels were released with a new obverse. Joe Fitzgerald created the updated profile image, basing it on Houdon’s famous Jefferson bust. The reverse on the first coin displays an American bison and the second reverse shows the Pacific Ocean along with the text Ocean in view! O! The joy! This quote comes from Captain William Clark’s journal.
Another obverse design appeared in 2006, only this time Jefferson is facing forwards. It was designed by James Franki and has stayed on the Jefferson Nickel ever since. The reverse features Schlag’s version of Monticello with the addition of his initials to the right. Under the terms of the Act of 2003, every five-cent coin beginning in 2006 must feature Jefferson and Monticello.
Jefferson Nickels have a long and interesting history in the American coinage system and guarantee to increase the value of any collection. There are some key dates to look out for, all of which are, of course, difficult to locate. Rarities include Wartime Jefferson Nickels containing 35% silver, the 1939-D and the 1950-D. A number of original Jefferson Nickel varieties exist as well, such as the 1943/2 overdate, a few prominent doubled-die pieces and the various coins with repunched mintmarks.
If you’re struggling to find rare or key date Jefferson Nickels, you’ll be pleased to know that Capital Gold Group can help. We stock the most sought-after coins and can even source pieces that aren’t currently available in our vault. For further advice regarding Jefferson Nickels or to discuss making a purchase, please feel free to call us or send us a message at your earliest convenience.