Know your U.S. coins: Liberty Head 5-cent

Classic Liberty adorns 5-cent coin
By , Coin World
Published : 03/09/15
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Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber was asked by Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden in 1881 to prepare patterns for 1-cent, 3-cent and 5-cent coins with a common obverse motif of a classic head of Liberty, with legend and date.

The reverse was to carry a wreath of corn, wheat and cotton framing the denomination reflected in Roman numerals.

Out of that exercise and with few modifications came the design for what would become the Liberty Head 5-cent coin. The pattern 1-cent and 3-cent pieces were scrapped as being too difficult to coin.

COIN VALUES: See how much Liberty Head 5-cent coins are worth today

Barber's adopted design carried a rendition of Liberty based on a Greco-Roman marble sculpture. Liberty faces left with a coronet with liberty incused, wheat heads and cotton boughs tucked behind. The pattern design was modified to include 13 six-pointed stars on the obverse and the legend was moved to the reverse. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was placed in small capital letters in an arc below the wreath-circled Roman number V for five. But there was no other identifiable designation for the denomination.

Soon after being issued in 1883 the Liberty Head 5-cent coin encountered a unique dilemma.

Because it resembled the gold $5 coin and did not include a denomination instantly clear to the public, unscrupulous individuals gold-plated the new 75 percent copper, 25 percent nickel coins before passing them off to merchants at 100 times their actual face value. Many people were fooled by the reeded edge applied to make it look like the gold $5 coin then in circulation. These surreptitious pieces quickly became known as "racketeer nickels."

To repair the damage caused by the confusion, Snowden ordered Barber to modify the 5-cent coin design. The motto was moved above the wreath on the reverse and the denomination cents was added below the wreath and Roman numeral V. More than 5 million of the 1883 Without cents subtype were made before production was stopped to strike the modified design. The public hoarded the coins, which are more affordable today than their With cents subtype. More than 16 million of the With cents subtype were struck, but the coins made their way extensively through commerce and are rather scarce today.

Nearly 600 million Liberty Head 5-cent coins were struck for circulation during its 29-year life span. Among the most difficult dates to find are the 1885 and 1886 issues, with 1.47 million and 3.32 million coins produced, respectively. The rarest circulation strike is the 1912-S, struck at the San Francisco Mint. Only 238,000 were produced for commerce.

Mintage of the Liberty Head 5-cent coins continued without interruption into late 1912, when the decision was made to replace the Liberty Head design with James Earle Fraser's Indian Head design beginning in 1913. During the changeover period from 1912 to 1913, it is believed one or more Philadelphia Mint employees clandestinely struck at least five Liberty Head 5-cents coins dated 1913. All five known specimens were struck on Proof planchets. These famous rarities constitute one of the greatest intrigues in U.S. numismatic history. When sold, the five coins have posted some of the all-time record prices. Two are held in museum collections and three are held in private collections.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:

Nickels:

Dimes and half dimes:

Quarters:

Half dollars:

Dollars:

Gold coins:

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