Economic Times Hurt Nickel
By Paul M. Green
The 1896 Liberty Head nickel is
not a great rarity. It is, however, one of the
last better Liberty Head nickel dates and it
also tells us a great deal about collecting
during the period. That makes it an interesting
coin to own and to study.
Coin collecting was having trouble in 1896
simply because the nation's economy was having
trouble. The impact of the Panic of 1893 was
still being felt, and people were simply not
feeling comfortable spending what little money
they had on coin collecting.
The troubled economy was having an impact on
coin production as well. The nickel was a
heavily used denomination in circulation as had
been seen with mintages above 10 million for the
years from 1887 through 1893. The impact of the
economic troubles was first seen in 1894 when
the mintage was just 5,410,500. It got better
the following year but was still below 10
million. Then in 1896 the total decreased again
but this time to 8,841,058.
It was not out of the question at the time to
see unusual saving of coins if dealers and
collectors thought that they might prove to be
better. That, however, was not the case with the
1896, as its low mintage was still higher than
the 1894 as well as dates from the 1880s.
A large percentage of the saving of new dates by
collectors, especially in the case of cents and
nickels, was in the form of proofs. There was a
good reason, as the cent and nickel were only
produced at Philadelphia. This was because of a
law that did not allow the production of coins
containing no silver or gold at any facility
other than Philadelphia. That meant all a
collector needed for a nickel collection each
year was a coin from Philadelphia, and many
opted for that coin to be a proof.
The weakening coin market was seen in the fact
that the 1896 proof total stood at 1,862, the
first time in the history of the Liberty Head
nickel that the proof total was under 2,000. The
$750 Prf-65 price of the 1896 does not stand out
simply because the other dates that followed
would also have lower mintages.
The 1896 is tougher in MS-65, where the current
listing is $2,500. It is the last Philadelphia
MS-65 to be priced at $2,000 or more, and that
reflects the fact that top Mint State grade
examples are scarce. The proofs are less
expensive, more available and are usually quite
nice, making them a good option for those who
want quality at a lower price.
In circulated grades, the 1896 is not that easy
simply because it was never saved. During the
course of the Liberty Head nickel, there were
relatively few new collectors. It is likely that
many examples of the 1896 were ultimately
retired and destroyed. The result is seen in a
$9.50 G-4 price, making the 1896 certainly not a
key but at least a better date in G-4 and all
other grades today.