The nickel is so familiar to Americans that the word has become synonymous with "five-cent coin," although this denomination has a shorter history than you might initially imagine. (You might also be surprised that this coin has always been composed of just 25% nickel, and is three-fourths copper. Today's nickels use the same copper-nickel alloy with a "clad" cupronickel outer layer.)
In fact, as odd as it is to imagine, the first five-cent piece—the Shield nickel—came into existence as a replacement for the fractional five-cent paper note!
Anyone alive today would be unfamiliar with a paper banknote worth less than a dollar. Although the notion that coins are the fractional medium of our currency has not always held true, especially during the era of gold and silver specie, it is indeed strange to imagine paper notes used for very small amounts of money, under $1.
Yet notes of this very type circulated in the United States during the 19th century. The last five-cent note of its kind mentioned earlier was prohibited by an Act of Congress passed in 1866 outlawing banknotes worth less than 10¢. This prompted the U.S. Mint to introduce copper-nickel 5¢ coins for the first time the same year. In the past, five-cent pieces had been silver half dimes (or, earlier, "half dismes").
The incident that directly led to this development was the work of the man in charge of printing U.S. paper money (1862-1868) around the time of the Civil War, Spencer Clark. Today, there is a law preventing living people from being depicted on our money of any kind. This is why "dead presidents" and personifications of Liberty are most often used. However, this statute didn't exist during Clark's tenure. So what did he decide to do? Put his own (not widely recognizable) portrait on the five-cent notes, of course.
You can imagine this was somewhat scandalous at the time. There are political dangers in putting living people on money, as was done by empires both ancient and contemporary. On rare occasions, it should be mentioned, living figures were shown on U.S. legal tender coins, notably on some issues from the first commemorative coin program of the first half of the 20th century.
The Shield Nickel
The Shield nickel (shown, above) was struck from 1866 to 1883. It weighed 5 grams and used the same copper-nickel alloy of the three-cent coin that debuted the previous year, 1865. Interestingly, in 1877 and 1878, only proof examples were struck, making these issues essentially ceremonial coins. The reverse design used a pattern of stars and rays surrounding the number "5," but the rays were later dropped in the Type II design. The shield motif on the obverse of the coin is similar to the two-cent (!) coin introduced two years earlier in 1864.
The Shield design for the five-cent nickel was followed by the Liberty Head nickel (shown, right), which is also commonly called the V nickel or Barber nickel—after its designer, the mint's chief engraver, Charles E. Barber. The "V nickel" moniker refers to the use of the Roman numeral for five, reminiscent of the 3¢ coin's design.
The V nickel design was followed by the Buffalo (or Indian Head) nickel from 1913 to 1938 and the modern Jefferson nickel in the time since. Both Barber nickels and Buffalo nickels are widely collected to this day.
All in all, who would've thunk there was once a five-cent note?
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