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.
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.
being issued in 1883 the Liberty Head 5-cent coin encountered a unique
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
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:
Dimes and half dimes: