US Liberty Nickels (1883-1913)

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In 1883 the Liberty Head nickel made its appearance. Designed by Charles E. Barber, the first pieces struck had the denomination on the reverse expressed simply by the Roman numeral V. Unscrupulous individuals gold plated them and passed them off as $5 gold pieces of similar diameter. The government realized its mistake, and the design was corrected to add the word CENTS below the V. A popular speculation arose when the design error was publicized, and 1883 without CENTS nickels were hoarded in large quantities, a situation which resulted in their being common to this day.

In 1913, the first Buffalo Nickel was minted and the Liberty Head Nickel series run was scheduled to end. However, five Liberty Nickels were minted (some think were actually six) which ended up in the hands of one person, the well-known Colonel Green. These coins were never placed into circulation and considered illegal to own for many years because they were not a regular issue. The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel is considered one of the rarest of all United States coins.

While three mints were used to produce the Liberty Head Nickel, the bulk of the workload fell upon the Philadelphia Mint. They minted coins from 1883-1913. The Denver and San Francisco Mints issued coins only in 1912

Diameter: 21.2 millimeters
Weight: 5 grams
Composition: .750 copper, .250 nickel
Edge: Plain

The Shield nickel, introduced in 1866, was the first base-metal five-cent piece in U.S. history; up to then, the half dime, a small silver coin, had filled the nation’s need for that denomination. Though reasonably well accepted, the Shield nickel was hardly untouchable; its stark, bland design made it a prime candidate for remodeling. And its newness didn’t protect it from replacement: At that time, there wasn’t yet a federal law establishing a minimum life expectancy for U.S. coin designs.

Snowden admired Barber’s new design, and he also welcomed the change because it gave him a chance to increase the diameter (and thus reduce the thickness) of the nickel. He believed that this would lengthen die life dramatically. Snowden proudly unveiled the Liberty Head nickel at a special ceremony on Jan. 30, 1883. Dignitaries attended and souvenirs of the first strikes were distributed to the guests. Regular coinage began later that weekthen suddenly, the celebrating stopped.

The first “V nickels” had barely left the Mint when appalled officials found a fundamental flaw in their design: Barber had omitted the word CENTS. His oversight soon created a crisis for Uncle Sam: Confidence artists were plating the nickels with gold and passing them off to unsuspecting merchants as $5 gold pieces. They were, after all, virtually the same size as half eagles. As brand new coins, they were still unfamiliar to the public, and they lacked any statement of value beyond the letter V, which, of course, could represent either five cents or five dollars.

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