Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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1/20 of a dollar: The first nickel nickel
As the Civil War wound down, the government sought to replace the fragile paper fractional notes with coins. With silver still not circulating, the Mint turned to nickel coins to replace the silver half dime in 1866. Though not particularly beautiful, the Shield 5-cent piece was produced for 21 years.
Almost a decade before the U.S. Mint started striking nickel 5-cent pieces, the Mint struck nickel cents.
When the Mint discontinued the prohibitively costly copper large cents in 1857, it replaced them with smaller coins (the same diameter as today’s cents, but thicker) that were white in color, superficially resembling silver.
The new Flying Eagle cents, which were 88 percent copper and 12 percent nickel, were immediately and immensely popular. In his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, researcher Walter Breen said the new small cents were commonly called nickels or nicks.
Coinage all but disappeared from circulation at the outset of the Civil War, replaced by fractional currency — notes in denominations from 3 cents to 50 cents. As the war wound down, the government sought to replace the shinplasters with coins. With silver still not circulating, the Mint turned to nickel coins to replace the tiny 3-cent silver piece in 1865 and the silver half dime in 1866. (Curiously, the Mint also produced silver versions of the coins for a few years after the introduction of the nickel coins. Mint Director James Pollock viewed nickel coins as temporary expedients that would eventually be replaced in turn with silver coins once gold and silver traded at par again with paper money.)
In mid-1864, after noticing that the public readily accepted small sized copper Civil War tokens in commerce, the Mint switched from copper-nickel cents to copper coins. The 3-cent piece, which never enjoyed great popularity, was last struck in any quantity in 1881, leaving the 5-cent piece as the last nickel coin — the nickel nickel.
The 1866 5-cent pieces were struck on 75 percent copper-25 percent nickel planchets, the same composition as today’s 5-cent coins.
The first nickel nickels were graceless affairs, showing a shield on the obverse and a large 5 on the reverse. But the Shield 5-cent piece was produced for 21 years, replaced in mid-1883 with the fatally flawed Liberty Head or “V” 5-cent piece.
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