Gerald Tebben

Five Facts

Gerald Tebben

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.

Coin World’s bloggers are not edited by Coin World’s editorial staff and blog posts reflect the views of the individual author.

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1/20th of a dollar


In 1913, the world famously needed a good five-cent cigar. Today it could stand a good five-cent nickel.

The five-cent piece, an odd duck in a decimal system, has been part of America’s coinage since the beginning. When the Mint began operation in 1792, the silver half-disme was the first coin out.

In 1866, the coin shifted to 75 percent nickel and 25 percent copper, a composition that’s held steady for the past 150 years, with a brief detour to a silvery alloy during World War II.

For the next several weeks, this blog will look at the history of the 1/20th of a dollar coin in a story that recounts the Mint’s first numismatic declaration of sovereignty, the importance of appearances in hard money days and speculation gone mad a half century ago.

The five-cent cigar quip dates from around 1913 to 1915 and is attributed to Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president.

The story goes that Marshall made the witty remark to a buddy while a verbose senator went on and on about what the country does and does not need. There are several stories about the statement’s genesis. This is my favorite. It comes from the June 20, 1925, issue of the long-gone Literary Digest.

During the eight years of his [Marshall’s] Vice-Presidency in the two Wilson administrations, and correlatively, as President of the Senate, he had many an opportunity to demonstrate his ready, kindly wit. Once the Senate was indulging itself with an endless, tiresome symposium of oratory as to the welfare of the nation. Senator after senator got up, delivered himself of his views as to what would cure the ills of the body politic. Mr. Marshall was patience itself. But one Senator, more verbose than any of his colleagues, went on and on and on. Finally Mr. Marshall leaned over to the Secretary of the Senate and said in a voice which must have reached the loquacious speaker: "What this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar!"

Today, the U.S. could use a good five-cent nickel. The Mint spends eight cents to make each one. The nickel has cost more than a nickel to produce for the last decade, from a spike of slightly more than 11 cents in 2011.

Next: A small beginning

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Older Comments (3)
My, um, "2¢" is that the nickel is actually an appropriate denomination given the system that Jefferson and others proposed for the new country. The basic coin denominations in the ratio of 1:10 (cent, di[s]me, dollar, and eagle) were each paired with a coin worth half the basic denomination: half-cent, half-dime, etc.

From the standpoints of both mathematics and change-making, I'd say that the ubiquitous _quarter_ is actually the oddball denomination. We all know how it was added to Jefferson's system to allow compatibility with Spanish milled dollars that were cut into halves, fourths, and eighths. The quarter thus breaks the 1:2:5 pattern followed by most modern decimal systems around the world. Combined with the quarter's role as the economy's workhorse coin, any future elimination of the 5¢ denomination is much more complicated than it would be had the 20¢ piece succeeded 150 years ago (!)

Interestingly, following successful removal of the 1¢ denomination Canada is looking at possibly eliminating their nickel as well. Their analysis reached the same conclusion about the impossibility of retaining the quarter, and proposals have already been floated to issue new 20¢ and 50¢ coins.