Friday, February 9, 2024

The Buffalo Nickel

A History of the Indian Head Nickel commonly known as the Buffalo Nickel

  • The Buffalo Nickel (officially the Indian Head Nickel) is a U.S. five-cent coin featuring a portrait of a Native American Indian on one side and an image of a buffalo (bison) on the other.
  • It was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser in 1912 as part of the U.S. Mint’s campaign to beautify American coinage.
  • It was produced at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints from 1913 to 1938.
  • The first coins were distributed on February 22, 1913, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National American Indian Memorial at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York.
  • Forty nickels were sent by the Mint for the ceremony in which most of the coins were distributed amongst the Native American chiefs who participated in the ceremony.
  • After the groundbreaking ceremony, the memorial was never built and was dubbed a “philanthropic humbug” by the media.
  • The Indian head nickel turned out to be difficult to coin. The coins tended to strike indistinctly and were subject to wear with the dates easily worn away in circulation.
  • The Treasury was eager to discontinue the coin.

In 1938, after the expiration of the minimum 25-year period during which the design could not be replaced, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel.

  • Fraser’s buffalo design continues to be admired and has been used on commemorative coins such as the silver and gold American Buffalo coin series.
  • The Buffalo Nickel was officially introduced into circulation on March 4, 1913, and within a week Chief Engraver Charles Barber was expressing concern about how quickly the dies were wearing out during production.
  • According to his estimates, Buffalo Nickel dies were wearing out and breaking more than three times faster than the Liberty Head Nickel dies.
  • Barber and others at the Mint also believed the Buffalo Nickel would not hold up very well to ordinary wear and tear, and that in particular the date and the “FIVE CENTS” marking would wear away completely.
  • To correct these problems, Barber prepared several revisions to the design, Fraser approved them, and this slightly revised Buffalo Nickel went into production right away.
  • Oddly, the dies wore out even faster after Barber’s revisions, and the changes didn’t help with the wear problem, either.

In 1937 a worker at the Denver Mint polished a Buffalo Nickel die to remove “clash marks” — the marks and scratches that occur when dies are stored in direct contact with each other.

  • Unfortunately, this worker did his job too thoroughly and not only removed all the clash marks but one of the buffalo’s legs as well.
  • Amazingly, this mistake was not caught until after thousands of these “three-legged nickels” had been minted and put into circulation.
  • The Buffalo Nickel was in production for the mandatory twenty-five years, from 1913 to 1938.

In 1938, as soon as was allowed by law, the Mint announced a competition to design the Buffalo Nickel’s successor. 

The Jefferson Nickel began circulating in November 1938.

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