Liberty Head Nickels – 1883-1913

Learn About Charles Barber’s Liberty Head Nickel

The Liberty Head Nickel was minted between the years 1883 and 1912. Some people even include the year 1913 as a year of mintage but that is due to the tiny numbers of 1913-dated coins in existence. The Chief Engraver for the US Mint Charles E. Barber was asked to design the one-cent, three-cent and five-cent pieces, which he did, but only the five-cent design was adopted.

Replacing the style-less Shield Nickel would not pose that difficult a task. Barber designed a coin with the head of Miss Liberty facing left with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” around her and the date below on the obverse. The reverse of his design had a large Roman “V” for five in the center of a wreath with “E PLURIBUS UNUM” above it.

(1882 Pattern by Charles E. Barber for the new Liberty Head Nickel.)

The accepted design was not too radically different from Barber’s pattern piece. Miss Liberty still adorned the obverse and faced left. The date was still below her, but she was surmounted by 13 stars instead. The Legend “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” was moved to the reverse of the coin.

(The 1883 Liberty Nickel – approved dies.)

There was just one small, minor problem. Some enterprising individuals decided to fool the unsuspecting public with the new coin. So what was the problem? Well, the coin could be gold-plated and passed on to the public as a $5 Gold piece. And that is exactly what happened.

There is a legend associated with this coin, as follows. An adventurous young man, who also happened to be a deaf-mute, by the name of Josh Tatum made quite a living off of this coin. He was from Boston and bought 1,000 of these new coins and he asked a jeweler to gold plate them for him. Josh would go into a local bar or general store and point to something that cost 5 cents, such as a cigar. He would then produce one of his “gold-plated nickels” and give it to the bartender or proprietor. Most would assume that he had just given them a $5.00 gold coin so he would get his beer, cigar or merchandise as well as $4.95 in change. He never said a word – because he couldn’t.   

Eventually, the newspapers carried woodcuts or other images of the new nickel coin – and Josh was caught. He went to court and his lawyer made a great case on his behalf. As a deaf-mute, he never told anyone that what he gave them wasn’t a nickel. His defense was, unbelievably, that they made the mistake and overpaid him. A judge agreed and Josh was freed. That is, supposedly, where the expression “are you joshing me?” originated. Whether it is true or legend, in 1883 the Mint changed the design on the reverse and added the word “CENTS.”

(The original 1883 Liberty Head Nickel reverse [left] without CENTS. The modified 1883 Liberty Head Nickel reverse [right] with the word CENTS added.)

So 1883, the first year of production saw 5,474,300 coins produced without the word CENTS on the reverse and 16,026,200 coins produced later that year with the word CENTS added to the reverse. The next year, 1884, saw 11,270,000 coins struck. The following year, 1885, saw the smallest production of business strike coins – only 1,472,700 coins were struck. And 1886 was another year in which a limited mintage was struck – only 3,326,000 coins bear that date.

Production cranked up in 1887 and through 1911, production years minted a high of 39.6 million coins and a low of only 5.4 million coins. But production at the Philadelphia Mint was regular and all dated years were actually minted.

Demand in the new century was high for a nickel. Nickel street cars, nickel cigars, and nickel coin-operated machines of all kinds were just becoming very popular. Both merchants and the public clamored for the coins and millions and millions were produced. In fact for the first few years of the 20th Century, the Philadelphia Mint had shifts working 24 hours a day to keep up with the demand for coins.

In 1912, a startling thing happened. Not only were 26.2 million nickels produced in Philadelphia but 8.4 million were struck in Denver and a mere 238,000 coins were also produced at the San Francisco Mint. The west coast Mint did not start to mint nickels until Christmas Eve and only struck them for four business days. The then-Mayor of San Francisco took one of the first forty 1912-S Liberty Head nickels that were struck and used it to pay the fare on the brand-new streetcar that was just beginning its run then. 1912 is the only year where coins were produced outside of Philadelphia.

(The 1912-D Liberty Nickel reverse [left] and the 1912-S Liberty Nickel reverse [right].)

1913 Liberty Head Nickels do NOT exist – at least that is what the official records of the US Mint will state. And even though no 1913 dated Liberty Head nickels, at least 5 of these coins do exist.

At the 1920 American Numismatic Association’s convention held in Chicago, coin dealer Samuel W. Brown displayed the first 1913 Liberty Head nickel ever to be publicly seen. Several months earlier, Brown had run advertisements to buy any 1913 Liberty Nickels that existed.

Brown’s story was that before the plans had been made to change the design from the Liberty Head Nickel to the Indian Head nickel, dies had been prepared and several coins had been struck to test the die. Brown actually possessed five specimens of the coin. The coin is today one of the great American coin rarities and specimens command millions of dollars.

(An original 1913 Liberty Head nickel.)

DateTypeMintageFine ValueUnc Value
1883 No CentsLiberty Head Nickel5,474,300$15$65
1883 W/CentsLiberty Head Nickel16,026,200$40$250
1884Liberty Head Nickel11,270,000$45$350
1885Liberty Head Nickel1,472,700$900$4,000
1886Liberty Head Nickel3,326,000$475$2,750
1887 to 1911Liberty Head Nickels39,557,639 to 5,410,500$85$225
1912Liberty Head Nickel26,234,569$8$150
1912-DLiberty Head Nickel8,474,000$15$450
1912-SLiberty Head Nickel238,000$275$2,150
1913Liberty Head Nickel5$750,000$4,500,000

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