At the end of the Buffalo nickel’s 25-year run (1913-1938), the U.S. Treasury launched a competition to replace the popular coin with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and his home, Monticello. Of the 390 entrants, Felix Schlag was named the winner. Nickels still bear Schlag’s imagery today—he was awarded only $1,000 for this enduring contribution to U.S. coinage.
The obverse of Schlag’s coin is just as he designed it, but the reverse was given a thumbs-down by the government’s Fine Arts Commission, even after Schlag had been given the commission. They did not care for Schlag’s side view of Monticello, and also required him to make room for the name of Jefferson’s home, since it was believed that many Americans would not make a connection between the two.
Today, of course, most Americans know that Jefferson lived at Monticello, but one could argue that this knowledge of U.S. history is due to the legend on the nickel as much as anything else.
Mintages before World War II were strong, peaking at more than 200-million coins in 1941. Of these prewar coins, collectors tend to seek out those with examples of doubling, as in the 1939 nickel.
During the war, in 1942, the Denver mintmark on some coins appears to have been struck twice, the first time sideways and the second time correctly. But the biggest thing to happen to nickels during World War II was the removal of nickel itself from the coins. Up to that point, Jefferson nickels had been composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel, a recipe that continues to this day. During the war, nickel was considered a strategic mineral, so the alloy was changed from 1942 until 1945 to 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese.
Wartime nickels were minted in plentiful numbers, so none are rare due to insufficient supplies. As with prewar nickels, collectors gravitate to the error varieties, such as the 1943 in which the 3 has been struck on top of a 2, the 1943 in which Jefferson appears to have two left eyes, and the 1945 with a doubled-die reverse.
Postwar coins of note include 1945 and ’55 Denver nickels in which the D mintmark has been struck over a San Francisco S, as well as those 1954 San Francisco nickels which displa...
While the Jefferson nickel continues to circulate today, the Westward Journey series of 2004 and 2005 tweaked the format a bit. In 2004, the nickel retained its Schlag obverse but featured two different reverse designs, both relating to the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The Louisiana Purchase/Peace Medal design by Norman E. Nemeth was based upon a medal produced for the expedition, while Al Maletsky’s Keelboat nickel depicted the craft the Corps of Discovery used to transport themselves and their supplies—until they reached the Rockies, that is.
In 2005, Joe Fitzgerald created a new obverse based on a sculpture of Jefferson by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Jamie Franki designed one of the two reverses for the coin, American Bison, which was a nod to both the beasts Lewis and Clark documented on their expedition and the beloved Buffalo nickels of 1913 to 1938. The other reverse, Ocean in View, was the work of Donna Weaver and imagines the view of the Pacific Ocean the explorers must have enjoyed.
Since 2006, Jefferson nickels have gone back to the Schlag reverse of Monticello, but the coin’s obverse is the work of Franki, based on a painting by Rembrandt Peale. Schlag’s initials still appear on the coin, but they are now on the reverse alongside his Monticello.
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