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The Coins of 1883
Interesting and Collectible
By Tom LaMarre

Some of the designs were old, some were new and some were altered outside the Mint. But they all made news, and today the coins of 1883 look pretty interesting to collectors.

Back then the Mint was turning out everything from cents to gold $20s. It was the smaller silver denominations and so-called “minor” coins—those struck in copper and nickel—that everyone wanted.

“During the year a large demand arose for dimes,” the Mint director wrote in his annual report for the fiscal year ending in June 1883, “and 7,175,119 were coined at the Mint in Philadelphia. The demand for minor coins continued urgent and 20,455,488 five-cent pieces and 40,467,419 one-cent pieces were struck and issued.”

No fewer than three different types of five-cent pieces were struck in 1883. The year started with the Shield nickel that had been around since the 1860s. When it was about to be replaced in 1883, one writer referred to it as the “old” Shield nickel and claimed it had a partially flattened crab on one side, a reference to the much-hated shield on the obverse. The same writer, however, described the large “5” on the reverse as “majestic.”

As a running change in 1883, the Shield nickel gave way to the Liberty Head nickel designed by Charles Barber. The omission of the word “CENTS” left the door open for con artists to gold-plate the new nickels, give them a reeded edge and pass them as gold $5s.

In April 1883, a newspaper reported that arrests for gilding nickels were being made “all over the country.” The April 6, 1883, issue of the Perry Chief, published in Perry, Iowa, reported, “A sharper has been passing the gilded new nickels on Dubuque merchants. He got away.”

The omission of “CENTS” wasn’t a case of forgetfulness on Barber’s part. He left it off deliberately, just as he had done on the copper-nickel three-cent piece. But the cents-less nickels caused so many headaches that new reverse dies with the inscription “CENTS” were made.

In Fine-12 grade, an 1883 Shield nickel is valued at $32, an 1883 Liberty Head nickel without cents at less than $9, and an 1883 Liberty Head nickel with cents at around $40.

With three different types of nickels struck in 1883, the country should have had plenty of five-cent pieces to go around. Yet in January 1883 the San Francisco Chronicle issued a plea for more silver half dimes. None had been minted since 1873.

The problem was that the San Francisco Mint was not allowed to strike nickels. Half dimes were another story, but they never made a comeback.

Dimes were struck only at the Philadelphia Mint in 1883, but counterfeit dimes were reported to be circulating in New Orleans in June. With a mintage of more than 7.6 million, a genuine 1883 dime in Very Fine-20 is valued at $20.

The Seated Liberty dime had been minted since 1837, but the design was nearing the end of the line. An 1883 newspaper article criticized the design, claiming that Liberty was seated upon nothing, holding a night cap on a stick. The writer complained that Liberty had no features, and that she had two right legs.

The design wasn’t very popular at the Treasury Department either. After years of experimentation and failed design competitions, the Seated Liberty dime, quarter and half dollar gave way to Barber’s Liberty head design in 1892.


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