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Bumpy Road for Liberty Head Nickels
By R.W. Julian

When the Shield nickel was introduced in June 1866 it was a very popular coin, despite occasional criticisms of the design. It was even described as a tombstone with a cross overhead, which was hardly fair as the artistry is not all that bad.

In the late 1860s Mint Director Henry R. Linderman was responsible for pursuing alternate designs but none of these came to anything. He was, however, an avid collector of patterns and the several varieties produced in these years did enrich his collection.

By the early 1870s the desire for a new design gradually played itself out and official thoughts were more interested in the new Trade dollar and the minor silver coinage. George Morgan, for example, was brought to America in the fall of 1876 by Linderman for the express purpose of preparing new artwork on the dime, quarter and half dollar. The silver crisis of 1877 1878 and the new Morgan dollar put an end to such plans, however.

Not all was lost for the nickel. In 1880, after the death of Linderman, Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden took it upon himself to redesign the minor coins, the 1 cent, 3 cents and 5 cents. He was a firm believer in a unified minor coinage and thought that all three coins should be made of copper-nickel.

To this end he asked Chief Engraver Charles Barber to create a head of Liberty for the proposed minor coinage. Snowden wanted identical artwork on the obverses of all three coins but varying reverses. Using the current 3-cent piece as a model he thought that the word "Cents" need not appear, only a Roman numeral I, III, or V, meaning 1, 3 or 5 cents. Although Barber is credited with the Liberty head, there is little doubt that Snowden made careful suggestions about how it should look.

By early 1881 Barber had completed the new head of Liberty and dies for the 1, 3 and 5 cents pattern pieces were soon made. Specimens were struck from all three sets of dies in 1881 but there was no variation of note on the two lower values. In point of fact Snowden soon learned from the Treasury that his proposal for a unified set of minor coins was dead in the water and after that nothing further was heard about the 1 and 3-cent pieces.

The nickel project was still alive and well, however, and three different patterns were struck in 1881. The first of these had UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the date on the obverse while the reverse had the simple Roman numeral V within an ornate wreath. The second pattern was similar to the first except that E PLURIBUS UNUM was placed over the wreath on the reverse. The third version instead used IN GOD WE TRUST at the top of the reverse.

The three patterns of 1881 were duplicated in 1882 and these may have been nothing more than a desire for additional specimens for Snowden's personal pattern collection. There are in fact some minor differences in the dies for these two years but this involves the size and shape of the dentils, hardly an earth-shaking reason for new dies. As in 1881 the early patterns of 1882 did not carry the word CENTS.

One of the 1882 patterns (with E PLURIBUS UNUM at the top of the reverse) is rather special in that the edge has five equally spaced bars. These were struck at the request of General William S. Rosecrans, who was concerned that blinded Civil War veterans needed some way of distinguishing the nickel from the gold half eagle. Apparently some dishonest people were prone to cheat the blind in this respect.

At the same time as the patterns were being struck with the new Liberty head, Snowden was experimenting with something else for the nickel. The Shield nickel was one of the more difficult coins to strike, given the hardness of the copper-nickel alloy and the diameter of the planchet. Snowden felt that a slight increase in diameter would improve die life.

Patterns were struck as large as 22 millimeters, but in the end Snowden settled for just over 21 millimeters; the size of the Shield nickel was roughly 20 millimeters. The final change may not seem like much, but after 1883 it worked well and was an effective tool in producing a higher-quality coinage.

After the 1882 patterns were struck Snowden considered the matter for some weeks, well into the fall of that year, and finally decided that his choice for the new design would be the variety with E PLURIBUS UNUM above the reverse wreath. In mid December 1882 he asked Coiner Oliver Bosbyshell to strike several specimens, enough for 25 to be sent to the Treasury for examination.

The pieces were sent, via Mint Director Horatio Burchard, to Treasury Secretary Charles J. Folger, who had the final say on coinage design. Folger, however, was something of an anomaly in Washington in that he felt that he should actually read the law before making any decision. Folger was a sincere man who wished to do what was right and thus not be criticized afterwards.

Folger soon discovered that the proposed design did not pass muster with the 1873 coinage law, in particular section 18. That provision required that the word LIBERTY appear on the obverse while the reverse was to have E PLURIBUS UNUM and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. As Liberty's crown carried the word LIBERTY this was not a problem but the rest was not acceptable to Folger.

Folger met with Mint Director Burchard and gave him the bad news. The lettering would have to conform to the 1873 law. Folger did note, however, that he liked both the head of Liberty and the wreath so these two motifs were safe from change. On Dec. 18, 1882, Burchard wrote Snowden with Folger's orders.

At this point one has to wonder why neither Snowden nor Barber had bothered to read the relevant section of the 1873 law governing placement of legends. Even Director Burchard must share the blame as he forwarded the patterns for approval without realizing the problem.

Snowden, as might be imagined, was less than pleased with Folger's order to redesign the pattern. On Dec. 20 he wrote Burchard, producing some odd arguments for accepting the pattern as it was. His first point was that the original draft of the 1873 law did not contain the offensive provision and therefore it could be ignored in 1882. He was thus claiming that the printed law was in error!

His second point was equally odd. He noted that in 1878, when the Morgan dollar design was adopted, it too had violated the 1873 law by having the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM on the wrong side. Linderman had realized this at the last moment and enlisted Snowden's help in persuading Treasury Secretary John Sherman to accept a design that was so good that it should not be changed; Snowden of course was "impartial" even though he had worked closely with Morgan for several weeks in perfecting the motifs! Sherman, for whatever reason, accepted this novel argument.

The Treasury chief replied on the 21st to Snowden's letter although it is likely that he had cleared his views with the President. It was made clear that no violation of the law would be permitted and the design must therefore conform to the 1873 law.

Little time was wasted in preparing new dies to meet the Treasury decision; as early as Dec. 23 Barber was working on the new dies. This was not as difficult as it might seem, however.

In 1882 dies were made in a quite different manner than is done today. The method was to punch the head hub into a master die, then add the necessary lettering. The same was true for the reverse, except that it was a wreath. The only delay, and it was relatively minor, was reducing the wreath to fit the new layout; this would have taken two or three days for the reducing machine and the necessary hand finishing.

Two different designs were prepared. The first had stars on the obverse while the reverse carried UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM. The Roman numeral V inside the wreath was the same except for size. The alternate version was similar except that IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the obverse, above the Liberty head.

Patterns were struck from the two sets of dies and the results carefully discussed among the Mint officers. The decision was made to choose the first design, without the motto on the obverse. It was deemed the cleaner of the two designs and thus the more artistic. The date 1882 was kept even though these fresh patterns were being struck early in January 1883.

The revised patterns were sent to Washington by mail on January 4, showing how quickly the Mint engraving department could work when necessary. Secretary Folger examined the revisions with care and fully approved them. On January 8 Folger informed Mint Director Burchard that coinage in the new design could begin at the Mint as soon as possible.

Although it would appear that the new coinage could begin with a matter of days, this was not the case for practical reasons. First of all, there were a considerable number of the smaller (20 millimeter) planchets on hand for the Shield nickel and there was no point in wasting these just to begin coinage of the other design. The second problem was that retooling of the machinery was necessary to accommodate the new die and planchet sizes.

Because the public demand for 5-cent pieces continued to be strong, the old planchets on hand were quickly coined. Nearly 1.5 million Shield nickels were thus struck in the early weeks of the year in an effort to meet public needs. The last Shield nickel was struck on Monday, Jan. 29.

On Jan. 30, 1883, there was a special ceremony at the Philadelphia Mint in honor of the new nickel coinage. Local dignitaries and Mint officials struck Liberty Head nickels as souvenirs but the first piece was reserved for President Arthur.

The ceremonial striking exhausted the relatively small stock of planchets on hand, and full-scale coinage then began on Thursday, Feb. 1. No doubt Snowden and Barber were well pleased that their long effort had been crowned with success.

When the first pieces were released to the public the reaction to the design was generally good. The slightly larger size also met with favor as it made the pieces easier to handle. Unfortunately a few people accepted the design a bit too readily.

Not all that many days had gone by when government officials began to sense that not all was well on the coinage front. Reports started to filter in that dishonest people ("sharpers") had gilded the new nickels as well as reeded the edges; this gave them the look of a gold half eagle and the idea was to pass them for $5 coins in dimly-lit bars where the fraud might not be detected.

It was not long before the matter made the newspapers and was promptly blown out of proportion. Most people understood that, once the matter was publicized, citizens would look very carefully at their coins but politics was another matter. Political enemies of the Arthur Administration used this minor fiasco to attack the President.

It has been reported that a deaf mute named Josh Tatum was one the prime offenders in passing the gold-plated nickels. It is not at all clear that this is true but the story is unlikely to die and Tatum, if he actually existed, will thus get his measure of numismatic fame.

As is sometimes the case over something which amounts to very little, official Washington reacted with some urgency. Superintendent Snowden was soon notified that the nickel had to be redesigned, this time adding the words CENTS to the reverse. Within a very short time Charles Barber was making drawings for consideration by Snowden and Burchard.

The first try, which was soon put onto dies, showed the word CENTS on a scroll crossing the Roman numeral V inside the wreath. The design was well thought out but for uncertain reasons was rejected, perhaps because it was felt that the scroll would wear off too quickly. There may also have been problems with stacking the coins if the scroll was too high on the coin.

Several nickel patterns are known showing the composition of the alloy but none of these was considered for the regular coinage. It appears that they were experiments in determining the best alloy for ease of coining. Nothing came of the tests and the surviving specimens are best thought of as mere curiosities.

In due course someone, perhaps Barber, came up with the idea of changing the reverse around to the point that the word CENTS was placed prominently below the wreath while E PLURIBUS UNUM was shifted to just above the wreath. It was perhaps not the best of solutions but did satisfy Secretary Folger, who approved the changes on March 14.

The exact date that the new coinage began is uncertain but was probably March 22. One doubts that any special ceremony was held as by now everyone probably wished that the whole matter would simply be forgotten.

When the new coins, with CENTS, reached the public there was an odd reaction. Rumors circulated that the government would recall the coins without the word CENTS and thus they would be more valuable. Large numbers of the earlier version were laid aside in families but relatively few of the 1883 type with CENTS. As a result the first version, with a much smaller mintage (5.5 million) is far easier to locate than the second variety with 16 million struck.

Proof nickels were of course made for collectors. Several dealers attempted to corner the market on the Shield and Liberty Head nickels without the word CENTS as these had only been struck when the circulation issues were being made. Snowden got wind of this and persuaded the Treasury to let him strike all three versions in proof the entire year and thus kill speculation. It also made the proof pieces available to the collector of small means.

The year 1883 had been a memorable one for the Mint and all concerned. The nickels of that year in modern collections are an interesting reminder of what went on during that year.


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