Ugly Design Proved Very Popular
By Paul M. Green
Robert E. Lee had already offered his sword to
Ulysses S. Grant, but there is no real doubt
that despite having the first example released
after that event the Shield nickel was a product
of the Civil War.
As it turned out, the Shield nickel would not
only prove to be useful in an emergency, but its
composition would ultimately pave the way for
virtually every nickel since that time. No other
coin has kept its 1866 composition, but the
Shield nickels had the same composition as
nickels do today and that makes their role in
history that much more important.
As the Civil War began in 1861, there were no
nickels or even consideration of such a coin.
The five-cent coin of the day was the 90 percent
silver half dime and there was no reason for
change until the public began to hoard silver
and gold coins.
Hoarding would not change as the way the Union
army was being kicked around the battlefield
gave no one, including Abraham Lincoln, any
reason for confidence.
The 90 percent silver half dime had not been
problem free over the years. Despite being
small, if there was ever any reason for the
public to hoard silver as had been done in the
early 1850s, the half dime despite its size
would be included in the hoarding.
In the early 1850s the discovery of gold in
California had upset the traditional
gold-to-silver ratio and suddenly the cost of
producing silver issues was more than their face
value. The public realized that fact and began
hoarding, which caused a national coin shortage.
Ultimately the Congress would take the required
action, which was to slightly reduce the amount
of silver, but at least for a time there had
been no half dimes or silver coins of other
denominations for commerce.
Simply reducing the amount of silver was not an
option when the hoarding inspired by the Civil
War began. The 1850s hoarding had been a result
of monetary considerations, but the Civil War
hoarding was inspired by fear of what would
happen next and that fear cannot be calmed by
simply reducing the amount of silver.
In fact, the situation went from bad to worse.
Not only did silver and gold coins disappear,
but even copper-nickel cents were hoarded.
Making change became an adventure with people
resorting to stamps, tokens and, later,
Fractional Currency. No one liked the situation
and a December 1863 Philadelphia Ledger article
complained about the matter with copper-nickel
cents when it asked, "Where are all the cents?
Being depreciated below their nominal value they
are not exported and considering what a nuisance
their abundance was before the suspension of
specie payments, and their immense coinage
since, it is a great wonder where they all can
The article reflected the sense of officials as
well as they immediately began to consider what
they could do to produce a cent that would not
suddenly vanish right after being released. The
decision was to produce bronze cents, which were
followed by bronze two-cent pieces in 1864 as
bronze it seemed could circulate where the
copper-nickel cent could not.
The change in the composition of the cent was
certainly not what a fellow named Joseph Wharton
wanted to hear. Wharton at the time was
perilously close to a one-man lobby for the use
of nickel in coins. There was a good reason
behind his concern. He happened to own the only
operating nickel mine at the time and he had to
be disappointed with the end of the
copper-nickel cent as over the years Wharton had
advocated that almost every denomination be made
of copper-nickel and the cent was the one case
where his efforts had been successful.
Fortunately for Wharton, he still had friends in
Congress and they did not let him down,
approving a copper-nickel three-cent piece that
first appeared in 1865 and then on May 16, 1866,
he got another present in the form of an
authorization for a new copper-nickel five-cent
The legislation gave the new coin a lift in
terms of popularity by allowing it to replace
the unpopular Fractional Currency of the same
denomination. A little help was perhaps seen as
needed as after all, there were still 90 percent
silver half dimes even if they were not in
It is probably a good thing that the new Shield
nickel got some help in gaining popularity in
the legislation as it was certainly not helped
by the design. In fact, Chief Engraver James B.
Longacre had prepared interesting patterns,
including one featuring George Washington, but
the decision that was made was to simply modify
the two-cent piece design and that pleased no
Over the years, there have been all sorts of
critics of coin designs but the Shield nickel
had the unique distinction of having its design
criticized by the man who most supported the
Wharton complained of the Shield nickel saying
it was a "curiously ugly device," suggesting
that the obverse resembled "old-fashioned
pictures of a tombstone." Nor was he alone as
the American Journal of Numismatics called the
Shield nickel the "Ugliest of all known coins."
Even with the bad reviews, the situation in
terms of commerce was still desperate and the
Shield nickel was quickly accepted. There was an
initial 1866 mintage of 14,742,500 pieces, which
is all the more impressive when you realize that
half dimes were also being produced.
It does appear that at least a few examples of
the 1866 Shield nickel were saved. The prices
today start at $27.50 in G-4 and rise to $260 in
MS-60 with an MS-65 being listed at $2,700.
There was also an 1866 repunched date which is
The supply of the 1866 is not bad as even in
MS-65 or better the Professional Coin Grading
service reports a total of 132 coins graded.
It does, however, appear that there were
problems. This was a different alloy than had
been used in the cent and the design was more
elaborate than had been seen in either the cent
or three-cent piece.
The strikes appear to be soft and there is some
indication of die trouble with the thought at
the time being that the rays on the reverse
required a high degree of metal flow, which was
not taking place as the cavities were not being
filled in properly. The logical conclusion was
to eliminate the rays and that was in active
Before the rays could be eliminated, the 1867
mintage began with a total of 2,019,000 being
made before the order was given to halt
production. The 1867 with that lower mintage and
probably less saving is naturally a better date
at $37.50 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $350 and an
MS-65 is $4,150. We find that PCGS has seen only
about 30 examples in MS-65 and up.
In addition to the business strikes there had
also been proofs with rays in both 1866 and
1867. The 1866 proof is thought to have had a
mintage of about 500 pieces, but there appear to
be striking problems on the proofs as well,
which results in a price of $3,850 for a
Proof-65. Interestingly enough, PCGS has graded
over 175 examples Proof-65 or better although
that is just over one-half of the total seen.
In the case of the 1867 with rays proof we have
one of the significant rarities from the period.
In Proof-65 the 1867 with rays is priced at
$75,000. The story is that there were not
supposed to be any proofs as the Chief Coiner
Archibald Loudon Snowden believed the design
change was coming. Someone, however, decided to
make a few proofs with estimates usually around
30 or 35 coins as the mintage.
Interestingly, however, NGC and PCGS have seen a
combined total of 57, which suggests that the
historic total of 30 or 35 might actually be too
low. Moreover, with the number seen and 25 alone
at PCGS grading Proof-65 or better, the current
$75,000 price may well seem a little high.
The removal of the rays would see an additional
1867 mintage of nearly 28.9 million pieces,
which was a very large total and the 1868 total
would be similar. The large mintages make them
available dates at $18 in G-4, $160 in MS-60 and
$900 and $975 in MS-65, respectively.
The PCGS numbers support the low prices as even
in MS-65 PCGS reports at least 70 examples of
The 1869, while having a lower mintage at
16,395,000, is less expensive with the same G-4
price of $18 and $160 in MS-60, but at just $775
in MS-65, making it the least expensive early
date Shield nickel and what makes it even more
confusing is that its MS-65 total at PCGS of 50
coins is actually slightly lower than the
The 1870 total would be still lower, with a
total mintage of 4,806,000. While lower, it is
worth noting that this was still a higher total
than had historically been seen in the case of
half dimes and the 1870 is still an available
date with a price of $27 in G-4, while an MS-60
is $200 with an MS-65 at $2,100.
The 1871 was significantly lower as it was the
first in the case of Shield nickels that had a
mintage of less than 1 million at just 561,000
pieces. That makes the 1871 a better date at $70
in G-4 while an MS-60 is $375, with an MS-65 at
The total seen by PCGS would support the price
as it has seen just 25 examples in MS-65 or
better. In the case of the 1871 and a number of
other dates there is a lower cost alternative if
you want a top quality example at a low price as
a Proof-65 currently lists at $1,100 and the
availability is striking, with PCGS having seen
close to 120 examples in Proof-65 or better.
We see similar situations with other years as
well and especially in the case of lower mintage
dates the option of acquiring a proof example
while perhaps not producing a set that is
uniform in grade is an option that can greatly
reduce the cost.
The dates from 1872 through 1876 are similar,
with mintages ranging from just over two million
for the 1875 to just over six million for the
1872. That puts them all in a relatively narrow
price range starting at $28 in G-4 for the 1873
with the lower mintage 1875 at $40. In MS-60 the
prices start at $200 for the 1873 "Open 3" and
go as high as $350 for the 1873 "Closed 3." The
other dates run in the low to mid $200s.
In MS-65, the 1872 at $1,350 is the least
expensive while the most costly is the $3,250
for the "Closed 3" 1873 while the "Open 3" is
$2,400 and the 1875 is at $2,000. Once again the
availability of proofs is far greater and the
price much lower, with the most expensive proof
being the 1875 at $1,650 while the least costly
is the $820 1872.
An interesting observation is that it was during
this period when the Seated Liberty half dime
was eliminated in 1873. The thought would be
that as the only five-cent coin the Shield
nickel would have then seen higher mintages, but
that was not really the case.
Probably as a result of the earlier high
mintages, the best guess is that the nation
simply had an adequate supply of the
denomination so large mintages were not
There was certainly not a large mintage in 1877
or 1878 as those two years saw only proofs of
the Shield nickel produced. The 1877 had an
estimated mintage of 900 and it is the tougher
of the two with a current price of $4,300 in
Proof-65. In the case of the 1878, the mintage
was placed at 2,350, making it much more
available at just $2,150 in Proof-65.
The prices appear to be supported by the PCGS
totals as it has seen the 1877 a total of 52
times in Proof-65 or better while the 1878 total
is over 140 in the same grades.
Business strikes would return to production in
1879, but hardly in large numbers. The likely
reason was that the mints were busy with the
production of Morgan dollars, which was legally
required under the terms of the Bland-Allison
Act. With heavy Morgan dollar mintages, the
totals for other denominations suffered at all
facilities although only Philadelphia was
allowed to produce Shield nickels as other
facilities were not allowed to produce coins
containing no gold or silver.
The 1879 Shield nickel mintage was just 29,100
pieces, by far the lowest business strike total
up to that time, and that makes the 1879 a much
better date at $415 in G-4. In MS-60 the 1879
lists for $970 while an MS-65 is at $2,000,
although the proof option is very real with
significantly larger numbers available and a
price of just $840.
The 1880, with a mintage of just 19,995, would
be the lowest mintage nickel business strike in
history and it is appropriately a tough coin
with a G-4 price of $560. An MS-60 is at $3,450
while an MS-65 is at $47,500. A Proof-65,
however, is just $700 and that certainly makes
many think twice about whether they want an
MS-65 or Proof-65.
The PCGS totals tell the story as it has seen
the 1880 just three times in MS-65 or better,
but the Proof-65 total is over 200, making the
1880 the most extreme case of a date where the
Proof-65 is a much lower cost alternative to an
MS-65, or in this case even an MS-60.
The 1881 had a higher mintage of 72,375,
although that is still a very low total for a
denomination that saw as much use as a nickel.
The 1881 with that low mintage still commands a
solid premium at $270 in G-4 while an MS-60 is
at $800 and an MS-65 at $1,900. Those prices
make the 1881 another case where the Proof-65 is
an attractive alternative as it is cheaper than
either the MS-60 or MS-65 at just $660.
Things would change dramatically in 1882 as
there was a clear need for a heavy infusion of
nickels into circulation. The 1882 had a mintage
of 11,476,600 and that makes it a readily
available date with a price of $18 in G-4, $150
in MS-60 and $750 in MS-65. A proof is still
less expensive, although not by much, as a
Proof-65 is $660. In fact the supply of Mint
State examples of the 1882 is large as there was
unusual hoarding at the time as the following
year would see the introduction of the Liberty
Head design and the collectors of the day
somewhat surprisingly hoarded all nickels
including the outgoing Shield nickels with PCGS
reporting hundreds of Mint State examples,
although primarily in grades from MS-60 to
The final 1883 mintage would include an 1883/2,
which is the one significant error in Shield
nickels. The 1883/2 lists for $210 in G-4 while
an MS-60 is at $1,400 while an MS-65 is $4,000
so while tough it is possible to include the
1883/2 in a collection.
The regular 1883 had a mintage of 1,456,919, but
it is more available than that total suggests as
it was heavily saved. The 1883 lists for $18 in
G-4 with an MS-60 at $160 while an MS-65 is at
$750. The Proof-65 is $660. PCGS reports over
270 examples of the 1883 just in MS-65, or
better making it a perfect choice if you want a
high grade type coin for a modest price.
Certainly the Shield nickel is an interesting
set, but one which seems to attract relatively
few collectors. It is probably a case where most
collectors looking at coins of the 1800s opt for
silver or gold but realistically a coin like the
Shield nickel has a lot to offer. There are not
only some low mintage dates, but realistically
the story of the Shield nickel is very much the
story of the United States at the time. It is a
coin that was born out of the emergency of the
Civil War and then its lowest mintages came
along at the time when the mints were
overwhelmed with silver dollar production.
In addition, it is a coin that basically set the
stage for what is now over 140 years of other
nickels, all with basically the same composition
as the Shield nickel with the exception of the
special composition nickels of World War II. It
is really a fascinating legacy for a somewhat
overlooked coin that is also an excellent