The Buffalo nickel is another iconic American coin that is very enjoyable to collect. Preceded by the Liberty Head nickel and succeeded by the Jefferson nickel, this coin pays homage to Native Indian history and the history of the American West. It is a piece of Americana and, in the words of Eames MacVeagh, “a permanent souvenir of a most attractive sort.”
The Earlier Version - The Liberty Head Nickel
Before the Buffalo nickel the Liberty Head nickel was in use. It featured designs by then Mint Engraver, Charles Barber. This coin was first issued in 1883, but its design created a sticky problem. The Liberty Head nickel was very similar in size to the half eagle. This meant that criminals could pass it off as a five dollar coin with a little work. Because of this, the design was modified to add the word CENTS to the reverse. With this modification, this nickel continued to be minted until 1912.
By 1909 the Liberty Head nickel had been in circulation for 26 years, one year longer than required by Congress of a coin to be eligible for redesign. Since then President Theodore Roosevelt had expressed dissatisfaction with the aesthetic of U.S. coinage, the mint director asked Barber to create pattern coins for a new nickel.
The Lincoln cent had premiered in 1909, and new Mint Director Andrew Abram wasn’t happy with its design. He wanted to seek congressional approval for a redesign by the sculptor James Earle Fraser. This was an enormous undertaking, however, and the end result of Fraser’s artistic vision was the Buffalo nickel which was first approved in December of 1912 and remained in circulation until 1938.
A New Nickel
Many banks assumed that the new nickel would be one honoring George Washington and placed early orders for this coin. In 1911 Fraser produced concepts and designs for this new coin, but instead of Washington or another founding father, it featured a Native American on one side and a bison on the other. After a lag time of more than six months, Fraser was commissioned to create a model of this design, instructed to focus on the head of the Native American and the bison. He completed his models by June of 1912. Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh was very pleased with it.
Before it could be minted, though, it had to be vetted by coin-operated machine manufacturers and satisfy their concern that counterfeiters would not be able to easily reproduce it. MacVeagh weighed in, stating that the coin would have the same dimensions as the previous nickel, but one manufacturer, Clarence Hobbs, lobbied hard for changes to the nickel that Fraser, the designer, strongly rejected. Finally, the design was authorized and in January of 1913 was used to strike experimental coins. Fraser made one minor modification to the coin’s border based on input from the Hobbs Company, but Clarence Hobbs continued to demand more changes. A minor battle between Fraser and Hobbs erupted, complete with dueling lawyers and letters of support from the business and artistic community. Secretary MacVeagh ruled in favor of Fraser, and Hobbs had the nerve to appeal his decision to President Taft.
The first Buffalo nickels were minted and 40 of them were passed out to Indian chiefs present for the groundbreaking of the National American Indian Memorial at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York on February 22, 1913.
The Buffalo Nickel’s Design
“...when I was asked to do a nickel, I felt I wanted to do something totally American—a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country's coin. It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100% American, and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly.” —James Earle Fraser
Ironically the Buffalo nickel’s composition was 75% copper and only 25% nickel. The obverse of the Buffalo nickel features the profile of a Native American with the word LIBERTY to the right of his forehead and nose and the date at the nape of his neck. The reverse shows an American buffalo with the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in an arch above it and the words E PLURIBUS UNUM wedged in below. The words FIVE CENTS are placed under the buffalo’s hooves.
Of these details, the date and denomination often wore early on in circulation, so, as a result, the words FIVE CENTS were enlarged, and the ground under the buffalo was made flat instead of rounded. Over time the thickness of the date was also increased, but, unfortunately, they still wore as the coins circulated, and many Buffalo nickels today do not have discernable dates for this reason.
There are a number of varieties of Buffalo nickels that are especially in demand. The 1937-D three-legged nickel is a favorite. This coin error resulted from a Denver pressman attempting to remove marks from a reverse die and weakening one leg as a result. The lowest mintage for this coin is the 1926-S. Buffalos vary widely in the strength of the strike, and coins with strong strikes are worth considerably more than coins with weak ones.