Most Americans have Jefferson nickels in their spare change or under their couch cushions. Even if the vast majority of our purchases are done through electronic means these days, the nickel remain ubiquitous. We are all familiar with it and have made hundreds or thousands of purchases using a Jefferson nickel. What is the history and value of this popular coin?
The History of the Jefferson Nickel
The Buffalo nickel (1913-1938) preceded the Jefferson nickel in American coinage. By the 1930s mint authorities wanted a new nickel but could not take action until the Buffalo nickel had been minted for 25 years. At that point in time, Congress’s authority expired and the Secretary of the Treasury could replace it. He moved quickly to do so in 1938, announcing that there would be a competition for the design of the new nickel. The U.S. Mint required the new design to feature Jefferson on the obverse and his home, Monticello, on the reverse. Felix Schlag, a recent immigrant from Germany, won the competition, and his submitted design was used with some alterations.
The Jefferson nickel was struck at all three mints, in Philadelphia, in Denver, and in San Francisco, beginning on October 3, 1938, and released into circulation on November 15. That year more than 30 million were produced, but few were seen in circulation at first because the public began hoarding them. This nickel was composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, nickel became scarce as it was war material. The mint released a version of the Jefferson nickel that was 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese from October of 1942 until 1945. These coins had a large mint mark above the image of Monticello on the reverse so they could be easily sorted from circulation when the war was over.
The Jefferson Nickel Design
The 1938 nickel design features a profile portrait of Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson is also featured on the $2 bill. It’s particularly appropriate that he be honored in this way because he helped to design the new monetary system of the fledgling United States. Along with Jefferson’s face the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” and “LIBERTY” appeared along with the year the coin was minted. In 1966 Felix Schlag’s initials (FS) were added to the obverse as well.
On the reverse is an image of Monticello, the mintmark, and the inscriptions “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,” “FIVE CENTS,” and “MONTICELLO.”
In 2005, designer Joe Fitzgerald used a new image of Jefferson on the nickel, referencing a bust of Jefferson by Jean-Antoine Houdon as inspiration. Since 2006 a forward-facing image of Jefferson has appeared on the obverse. The designer of the 2006 edition, James Franki, based it on an 1800 study by Rembrandt Peale. The word “Liberty” in Jefferson’s handwriting appears on both the 2005 obverse and the 2006 design. The reverse on the current coin remains Schlag’s design with some sharpening by the mint to make it clearer. Schlag’s initials are now included to the right of the picture of Monticello.
Collectible Jefferson Nickels
The Jefferson nickel’s metal composition, unlike the earliest Kennedy half dollars, is not especially valuable, however, there are many popular editions, some of which have collectible value. The 1938 edition and the “war nickels” of 1942-1945 stand out. Other valuable dates include:
- 1939 D
- 1943 P 3/2
- 1949 D D/S
- 1954 S S/D
- 1955 D D/S
- 1994-P SMS
- 1997-P SMS
Uncirculated Full Step coins from most any date 1990 and earlier are worth keeping. Full Steps from some dates are exceptionally rare and can be worth several thousand dollars!
This coin is great for introducing amateur coin collectors to the hobby because its been in production so long and so many editions of this coin can easily be found in circulation (or under your couch cushions).