Hobo nickels are actual U.S. coins (usually Buffalo nickels but sometimes Jefferson) whose original image has been carved away and replaced with something more whimsical. These folk-art pieces are known as hobo nickels because hobos supposedly started carving them on long train rides during the Depression. In fact, hobo nickels first appeared in 1913, the year the Buffalo nickel was released, and are still carved by artists today.

Nickels were selected for their thickness and width, as well as the fact that they were cheaper to work on than quarters. Typically, the Indian chief on the coin’s obverse would be modified into a bearded man wearing a hat. The buffalo on the coin’s reverse was often left alone or transformed into a locomotive. In early hobo nickels (those made prior to World War II), details like the coin’s date and the word “LIBERTY” near the chief’s forehead were left intact, a tradition continued by contemporary hobo-nickel artists.

Of the original hobo-nickel artists, the most famous is Bertram Weigand, who often “signed” his coins by scratching out the “LI” and “Y” in “LIBERTY” on the coin’s obverse. According to Stephen Alpert of the Original Hobo Nickel Society, carved coins by Bert are rare, but nickels produced by his protege, George Washington “Bo” Hughes, are more common.

From the beginning, the profile of the chief’s face, particularly the nose, invited caricature. Thus, many hobo nickels feature unflattering, stereotypical depictions of Jews. During World War I, though, hobo nickels parodied the face of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm.

Today, artists using specialized power tools have left their inner-hobos behind, creating nickels that are more like tiny sculptures. Sam Alfano inlays gold into his nickels, Ron Landis signs and numbers his coins, and Sam Adams is known for the deep relief of his portraits, which range from President Kennedy to Santa Claus.

As to the legality of hobo nickels, while it is illegal to “fraudulently” alter or deface a coin, the intent of the mutilation is important. For example, machines at amusement parks that flatten and then stamp pennies with a commemorative design are okay because no one could pass the flattened penny off for a real one. Similarly, no one would use a hobo nickel to make a purchase, especially because a real hobo nickel is probably worth a good deal more than a measly five cents.


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