Liberty Nickel (1883-1912)
The Liberty Head or V nickel succeeded the Shield nickel in 1883 and was a highly circulated and used coin. During the later years of the Shield nickel and into the Liberty Head’s era, the penny arcade, slot machine and nickelodeon became popular and this five-cent piece was heavily used.
Liberty Nickel Design
The original nickel was made of 75% copper and 25% nickel, the same ratio used in today’s five-cent nickels. This composition has stayed the same for all nickels with the exception of the Silver alloy war nickels (from 1942-1945), regardless of denomination or series.
Joseph Wharton was a magnate who controlled much of the nickel mining in the United States at the time. Wharton successfully lobbied Congress for the use of nickel in U.S. coinage. The U.S. Mint had been skeptical of nickel coins, but the three-cent coin was successful enough to pave the way for other denominations, and Wharton’s supporters won the five-cent nickel in 1866 after the successful first year of the three-cent nickel.
Wharton’s lobbying in the early 1860s pushed for more nickel in other coins, and this led to the Mint working on new designs for a variety of coins, among them was the Shield nickel. Nearly twenty years later well-known chief engraver Charles Barber was tasked with the new design which became the Liberty V Nickel.
Barber went to work and created some patterns in 1882, but they were rejected, as he had put “United States of America” on the obverse instead of the reverse, where it was required by law. Barber modified his design and the Mint began striking the new nickel in 1883.
The planchets for nickel coins were very hard — harder than the Silver, Gold and Copper that they were replacing. This made striking difficult. Barber’s simple designs were made with ease of striking in mind, and they struck well and survived in large numbers.
The design incorporated a Liberty head on the front wearing a coronet and wreath surrounded by stars, and the back had the denomination inside a wreath with “United States of America” and “E Pluribus Unum” around the outside.
Barber’s design worked, but fraudsters soon realized that these coins could be plated in Gold and passed off as five-dollar coins. The production stopped for the 1883 nickel and Barber revised his design to put “cents” on the reverse to make sure the possibility of fraud was eliminated.
Liberty Nickel Mintages
High mintages in 1883 and 1884 made sure plenty of these new nickels circulated, however, the next couple of years saw much smaller mintages, which are now highly sought-after pieces of the collection. These coins remained in high demand from 1887 through 1894, when production was briefly paused. They continued to be in high demand after production resumed through the end of their run in 1912.
There are five 1913 Liberty nickels known, but they were not authorized to be struck and it’s unclear where they came from. These are extremely rare and command millions of dollars at auction. The most public example can be found on display at the American Numismatic Association headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Liberty Head or V nickel was the first nickel to gain widespread acceptance, and due to the popularity of coin-operated machines during its run, it saw huge demand. These coins were among the many that Charles Barber designed, and his lineage of U.S. coins is well-documented. Barber’s coin designs were the enduring legacy of his era.
These nickels are easy to find in lower grades and do not command a large premium. The exceptions to these would be the 1885 and 1886 coins, which had lower mintages. Earlier dates are more expensive than later dates with the exception of the 1894 and 1912-S. As with most coins, higher grades command a significant premium.
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