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Consider the Shield Nickel
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine

Three nickel series are collected by most of today's collectors. First, there are Jefferson nickels, which are collected by virtually all U.S. collectors because they're the nickels we see every day. For many years, it was even possible to assemble a complete date-mint run from circulation, but this changed in 1965, when silver coins were taken from circulation because of their bullion content. Still, Jefferson nickels are avidly collected, and the obverse and reverse changes in recent years has added to their popularity as collectibles.

Buffalo nickels, coined from 1913-1938, are collected even by people who never saw them in circulation. Considered one of the most beautiful of all U.S. coins, their design alone ensures their continuing popularity.

Then there are Liberty Head nickels, made popular by the continuous advertisements for many years of B. Max Mehl. In his advertising, Mehl boasted that he would pay $50 for a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, knowing full well that all of this date were accounted for. His purpose really was to sell his coin price booklet and thereby to purchase coins inexpensively for his thriving coin business.

But what about the first nickel series? Why aren't Shield nickels collected as avidly as their successors?

Well, one reason for this lack of interest is that they're considered homely. Actually, "homely" is too nice a word. According to Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, "The shield design was promptly ridiculed as 'the ugliest of all known coins.'" The chief proponent for a nickel coin, one Joseph Wharton (who owned nickel mines and was a friend to many in Congress), called the coin's obverse "a tombstone surmounted by a cross overhung by weeping willows," which surely was not meant as a compliment.

So our first nickel was ugly, but it must have served a purpose back in 1866, when it was introduced. What was this purpose? Why did the nickel eventually supplant the silver half dime, which had been introduced in 1794 and continued to be minted through 1873?

The story of the introduction of the nickel in 1866 really begins earlier, with the Civil War. As a result of that conflict, silver coins quickly disappeared from circulation. They were replaced initially by postage stamps, which proved unsatisfactory. As Breen puts it, "These proved entirely unsuitable, becoming first impossibly filthy sticky messes, then too short in supply to serve as a circulating medium." Other attempted solutions to the lack of small coins included encased postage stamps and Fractional Currency.

The latter continued to circulate after the war in the face of mounting protests from the public. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough silver available to redeem the Fractional Currency at face value, which meant that half dime coinage would not have been sufficient to take care of all the five-cent notes that had been issued.

Actually, the solution to the five cent problem had been foreshadowed in early 1865, with the authorization of the nickel three-cent piece to retire three-cent notes. Why not a nickel five-cent piece to do the same for five-cent notes?

As mentioned above, Wharton was an avid proponent of the use of nickel in U.S. coins. In A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, Q. David Bowers writes, "Unrelentingly in the early 1860s, Wharton solicited, cajoled, and otherwise influenced politicians and Mint officials to make increasing use of the metal." Wharton advocated striking coins in an alloy of 25 percent nickel and 75 percent copper, which was twice as much nickel as had been used in the copper-nickel cents. Copper-nickel cents were notoriously difficult to strike up fully, which is why they were soon replaced with bronze cents (95 percent copper, 5 percent tin and zinc).

Mint Director James Pollock, undoubtedly influenced by his experience with the copper-nickel alloy, was initially opposed to nickel coinage. However, he changed his mind about the use of nickel in 1865.

Here's how Bowers describes it: "We can only guess what happened behind the scenes, but in 1865 Mint Director James Pollock had a change of heart, and all of a sudden nickel was back in the limelight, now championed by the director as a very desirable coinage metal!" As a result of this change of heart, the nickel was born.

Various patterns for the first nickel were prepared by chief engraver James B. Longacre. There was at least one featuring the bust of Lincoln and others depicting Washington, but the one favored by Pollock was described as follows in a memorandum accompanying several patterns to Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch:

"Obverse, the 'Union Shield resting on tied arrows,' &c. Motto, 'In God we trust,' and date. Reverse, 13 stars set in rays, U.S. of America, and figure &c. '5 cents.' A neat and unique design, and differs from the devices on all of our other coinage. This specimen is in my opinion before all the others in artistic beauty, significance, and diversity. I would respectfully recommend its adoption.

Far from being a "unique design," differing "from the devices on all of our other coinage," the obverse design was adapted "from Longacre's motif on the bronze two-cent piece introduced in 1864."

As frequently happens with new designs, the Longacre version used in 1866 proved unsatisfactory. The problem was that the rays on the reverse made the design difficult to strike up fully, and they were eliminated in February 1867. This resulted in two different design types of Shield nickels: the 1866 and 1867 "with rays" design and the 1867 and thereafter "without rays" design.

As it turns out, there are several different ways to collect Shield nickels. Probably the most common method is to collect them as types. Using this method, the collector needs only two coins - either an 1866 or 1867 with rays and any other date in the series without rays. Pricewise, the most obtainable (and least expensive) options would be the 1866 with rays and any of the dates 1867-1869.

If you decide to put together a complete date set of circulation strikes, one thing you'll find is that several of the dates are remarkably inexpensive relative to other, later nickels of similar mintages. For example, the 1883, with a mintage of 1,456,919, starts at just $18 in Good-4 in the 2008 U.S. Coin Digest, is worth $32 in Fine-12, $60 in Extremely Fine-40, $150 in Mint State-60, and $750 in MS-65. With a similar mintage, the 1915-S Buffalo nickel is worth $40, $90, $320, $625, and $3,400 in the same grades. Demand is the difference, as Buffalo nickels are widely collected, but Shield nickels are not. Another thing you'll find is that three circulation-strike Shield nickels have quite low mintages: 1879 (25,900), 1880 (16,000), and 1881 (68,000). These mintages are taken from A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, which separates circulation-strike and proof mintages.

As you would expect, all three of these dates are expensive in all grades, although not nearly as expensive as they would be if they were part of a more popularly collected series. Values follow the mintages, with the 1880 being the most expensive, followed by the 1879 and then the 1881. The three start at $650, $415, and $270, respectively, in G-4; are worth $850, $625, and $445 in F-12; $3,450, $970, and $800 in MS-60; and $40,000, $2,000, and $1,900 in MS-65.

If you think that the values of these three dates are high, consider how high they might be if they were part of popular series. For example, with a mintage of 40,000 pieces, which is more than either the 1879 or 1880 nickels, the 1913-S Barber quarter starts at $1,300 in G-4. Or, how about the 1911-D Indian Head gold $2.50? This is a coin with a mintage of 55,680, and it's worth $2,700 in Very Fine-20, the lowest grade listed in U.S. Coin Digest.

At $40,000, the 1880 is incredibly expensive in MS-65. The reason for this is that very few specimens exist. According to Bowers' Guide Book, just five pieces had been graded MS-65 by the major certification services as of early 2006. By contrast, 561 had been graded Proof-65, and Bowers writes, "When buying an 1880, likely as not you will acquire a Proof. Most are deeply mirrored and have good eye appeal." The U.S. Coin Digest gives a value for the 1880 Proof-65 of just $670.

At 3,955, the mintage of the proof 1880 was less than a fourth of the mintage of the circulation strike, so why are there so many more of the proof variety available today? The answer is that most of the people who acquired the proofs were collectors who kept them, whereas the circulation strikes actually entered circulation and most were lost as a result. Bowers estimates survival of the circulation-strike 1880s as a maximum of 720, with survival of the proofs as 3,100 to 3,400.

The only other circulation-strike Shield nickel that is worth more than $100 in G-4 is the series overdate: 1883/2. Bowers estimates the mintage of this piece as 118,975, with possibly as many as 3,300 survivors. It's worth $190 in G-4, $335 in F-12, $650 in EF-40, $1,050 in MS-60, and $3,800 in MS-65.

Bowers writes that there are several varieties of the overdate. In its most striking form, "An unused 1882 die was overpunched with a four-digit 1883 date logotype - This particular die was known to specialists in the 1950s, and I recall looking for them. However, the overdate was not listed in popular references, and few were aware of its existence. Accordingly, examples could be purchased for the same price as regular 1883 coins. The corollary is that once such a coin was found, customers for it were scarce."

Bowers also quotes a warning by Howard Spindel, a specialist in the overdate.

"Beware of 1882 Shield nickels with a filled in blobby 2, as these are very frequently offered as 1883/2. This is possibly the single most misunderstood coin in all U.S. coinage. The 1883 logotype is wider than the 1882 logotype, and the blobby 2 coins are of the narrower logotype."

If you decide to try to put together a date set of Shield nickels, you may want to include the 1877 and 1878, which were minted only in proof versions. The number minted of the 1877 is the subject of some speculation, as the U.S. Coin Digest gives a mintage of approximately 900, whereas Bowers suggests that the actual number may be 1,250 to 1,500. He further estimates that the number of surviving pieces is between 1,000 and 1,150.

Curiously, U.S. Coin Digest assigns values to the 1877 in grades G-4 through About Uncirculated-50 plus Proof-65. I say "curiously," because Bowers' number for the total certified population as of early 2006 is 711, with just eight coins receiving grades below Proof-60.

In other words, the bulk of the population certified by the big three services have grades between Proof-60 and Proof-65. At any rate, the values given in U.S. Coin Digest range between $1,500 and $4,300. Again, imagine what these values would be if this were part of a more popular series.

Both sources of information agree on the mintage of the 1878 Shield nickel at 2,350 pieces. Bowers estimates that 1,750 to 1,950 of these are still in existence. As with the 1877, U.S. Coin Digest lists values in grades G-4 through AU-50 and Proof-65, with a range from $800 to $2,150. The certified population figures given in Bowers' Guide Book show a similar situation to that seen with the 1877: a small number grading less than Proof-60, with most having grades below Proof-60 and Proof-65.

Another way to collect Shield nickels is as proofs, as all of the dates are available as such. In most cases, the dates in Proof-65 are not prohibitively expensive, with a range from $660 (1881-1883) to $4,300 (1877). The one exception is the 1867 "with rays" proof, which had an estimated mintage of just 55 to 80 pieces, according to Bowers. U.S. Coin Digest assigns it a value of $75,000 in Proof-65, and Bowers estimates that 40-45 have survived.

Yet another interesting way to collect Shield nickels is by varieties such as repunched dates, overdates, and doubled dies. In The Cherrypickers' Guide to Rare Die Varieties (4th edition), Fivaz and Stanton write, "there are literally hundreds of listed varieties in the Shield Nickel series, and no doubt even more will appear in future reference works." According to them, the reason for such a large number of varieties is that the coin became popular quickly, which required the minting of large quantities. Many new dies were necessary to produce the numbers of nickels required plus the hardness of the 25% nickel/75% copper alloy caused dies to deteriorate more rapidly than normal. When you put all this together, it's no wonder that "quality control suffered."

A Guide Book of United States Coins lists only six varieties: 1866 repunched date; 1873, closed 3; 1873, open 3; 1873, large over small 3; 1879, 9 over 8; and 1883, 3 over 2. By contrast, The Cherrypickers' Guide devotes more than 60 pages to Shield nickel varieties! Many of the repunched dates are quite striking, with clear separation of the dates.

According to the values given for many of the varieties in The Cherrypickers' Guide, if you find any of them, you probably won't have to pay much more for the coin than the normal version would cost. It's pretty obvious that collecting Shield nickels by die varieties might be the collecting venture of a lifetime.

To aid you in the quest for die varieties, Fivaz and Stanton recommend Ed Fletcher's The Shield Five Cent Series. I looked online and found some copies at Amazon.com and also at the publisher's site (www.stantonbooks.com). Bowers' Guide Book, available from www.whitmanbooks.com and other online booksellers, also pictures and describes many Shield nickel varieties.

As I hope you've seen from this article, when you're satisfied with your accomplishments in collecting the most popular nickel series, it might be worthwhile to take a look at the first nickel series - Shield nickels. Considering their scarcity, these really old and historic nickels are remarkably inexpensive. If you decide to give them a try, I think you won't regret it.

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