US Coins

Inside Coin World: Hobo nickels endure as folk art

Hobo nickels endure as a folk art form, as shown by these two pieces produced by different artists in two different series.

Original images courtesy of Heritage Auctions and Aleksey Saburov.

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Cover feature: Hobo nickels endure as folk art

Hobo nickels — Indian Head 5-cent coins that are artistically altered — have been around as a form of folk art since the first half of the 20th century. As Paul Gilkes writes in the cover feature in the March issue of Coin World, the first creators were hobos, who tendered their art in exchange for food and more.

To create a hobo nickel, an artist takes a “Buffalo nickel” and, using a variety of tools, shapes the Indian’s portrait, or the bison, into new forms — a self-portrait, for example, or another animal. 

While the original artists who created such works of art are long gone, generations of new artists ensure that the art form endures. In his article, Paul shares the secrets of a number of modern-day nickel carvers. Read his cover feature, exclusive to the print and digital editions of the March monthly issue of Coin World.

World Coins: These coins, like their users, were ‘untouchable’

Late in the 19th century, the medical establishment identified the cause of leprosy, a disease whose cause was once blamed on the victim’s moral failures. However, as Chris Bulfinch writes in his feature, the discovery of the germs that caused leprosy did not bring comfort to the disease's sufferers; instead, victims were placed into isolated camps to prevent them from infecting others.

The leprosy colonies operated like other communities and needed forms of money to use in commerce. The custodians of the camps created special currencies whose use was limited to the colonies and camps, rather than use regular coins and paper money that could inadvertently spread the disease outside. These currencies were, essentially, considered as “untouchable” as the afflicted residents themselves.

Eventually, science showed that the germs were not transmitted by money, and that there was likewise no need for the special camps or colonies themselves. Today, collectors prize these special issues, and keep them as reminders of a time when public fear led to practices no longer considered necessary or acceptable.

Paper Money: Quakers reject Continental Currency

When the 13 Colonies sought independence from England and the Revolutionary War began, the Continental Congress authorized circulating paper money called Continental Currency designed to help fund the war. As Elizabeth Askren writes in her Paper Money feature, the Quakers rejected use of the notes. “Along with economic concerns, this rejection served as a radical demonstration of pacifist values,” she writes.

She explained, “With their refusal, Quakers recognized the value of currency — not only monetarily, but as a powerful symbol of government.”

Others in the 13 Colonies were unhappy with the Quakers’ position, and some critics even advocated that they be executed for their views. To learn more about this era, read Elizabeth’s feature, exclusive to the print and digital editions of the March Coin World.

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