The Rich History of the Jefferson Nickel
This nickel was first minted in 1938 as a replacement for the Buffalo nickel, which was facing significant striking issues and die breakages due to its intricate design.
To create the design of this new nickel, a contest was hosted by the US Mint from January to April with the stipulation that the coin must feature Jefferson on the obverse and Monticello on the reverse. Judges met on April 20th to assess the submissions of over 390 artists and settled on Felix Schlegel as the winner, granting him the $1000 competition prize.
The original Jefferson nickel design featured a profile of Thomas Jefferson facing left on the obverse and a corner view of Monticello house on the reverse. However, the Mint didn’t approve of the corner view and requested a head-on view of the building instead. This remains the coin’s reverse today.
Its first major design change came in 1942, only a few years after production began. Nickel became a critical metal for the war effort, so production of nickels that actually used a nickel alloy was halted. Instead, nickels were produced with an alloy of silver, copper, and manganese until the end of the war 1945. The Jefferson silver nickel is known as the Wartime Nickel.
After that, the design was only slightly tweaked and sharpened. It remained largely the same until 2004 and 2005, which featured the “Westward Journey” design series. This series commemorated the bicentennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition. There were four designs used:
- Louisiana Purchase/Peace Medal —This new reverse is an homage to the Jefferson Peace Medals that were carried by Lewis and Clark and given to Native American chiefs. It depicts two clasping hands beneath a crossed tomahawk and tobacco pipe.
- Keelboat — This reverse features the keelboat used by Lewis and Clark to carry their crew and supplies.
- American Bison — This was the first complete redesign of both the obverse and reverse of the Jefferson nickel since its production began. The obverse is a close-up, detailed profile of Jefferson based on a marble bust carved in 1789 by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse features a rightward-facing bison.
- Ocean in View — While the obverse is the same as the American Bison’s, the reverse depicts a view of the Pacific from over a hill. It also features an inscription taken from the November 7, 1805 entry in Clark’s journal: “Ocean in view! O! The joy!”
The series came to an end in 2006, but it marked the start of a permanent design change. It was followed by the “Return to Monticello” nickel, which remains in circulation today. While it features the original reverse of a head-on view of Monticello, the obverse now features an all-new, three-quarters view of Jefferson on the left side of the coin.
From 1938 until 1941, they weighed 5 grams and were crafted from 75% copper and 25% nickel. Wartime Nickels were composed of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. From 1946 onwards, nickels were minted with the original 1938 composition.
Circulation and Availability
Jefferson nickels have been produced yearly since 1938. While they were subject to hoarding during their first few years of production, they were in normal circulation by 1940.
870 million Wartime Nickels were produced between 1942 and 1945, but they weren’t meant to be permanent additions to circulating coins. Their large, easily identifiable mint marks assisted in removing silver Jefferson nickels from circulation when production stopped in 1945.
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What are Jefferson nickels made out of?
These nickels are produced with 75% copper and 25% nickel, while the “Wartime Nickels” (Jefferson silver nickels produced from mid-1942 until 1945) were crafted from 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese.
What are the rarest Jefferson nickels?
The rarest and most valuable nickels include the 1939-D, 1997-P Matte Proof (released with the US Botanic Garden commemorative set), 1949-D/S, 1943-P doubled eye, 1943/2-P, 1939-P double Monticello, and the 1945-P doubled die reverse. These examples are rare due to mint errors and irregularities like doubling errors and low production numbers.
During what years were Jefferson nickels produced?
These nickels were first struck by the US Mint in 1938 as a replacement for the Buffalo nickel. They are still produced for circulation today.