|Composition:||75% copper 25% nickel|
|Designer:||James Earle Fraser|
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt expressed dissatisfaction over the current coin designs of the time. One of these designs was the 5-cent piece or more commonly known as the nickel. According to law, a coins’ design could only be changed every 25 years without special Congressional approval. Therefore in 1909, one year after the Liberty Head nickel design was eligible for change, Mint Director Frank Leach, instructed Mint Engraver Charles Barber to create a new design. Barber introduced a design featuring George Washington. However, after Leach left office later that year, the project was discontinued. The Liberty Head nickel continued to be minted.
The Unique Design
Eames MacVeagh, the son of Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh wrote to his father on May 4, 1911:
A little matter that seems to have been overlooked by all of you is the opportunity to beautify the design of the nickel or five cent piece during your administration, and it seems to me that it would be a permanent souvenir of a most attractive sort. As possibly you are aware, it is the only coin the design of which you can change during your administration, as I believe there is a law to the effect that the designs must not be changed oftener than every twenty-five years. I should think also it might be the coin of which the greatest numbers are in circulation.
Such a letter motivated MacVeagh to look into the matter. During this time, design submissions for the new nickel were requested. James Earl Fraser, a student sculptor who worked with the legendary Augustus Saint-Gaudens , submitted a design featuring a Native American on one side and a bison on the other. This design was favorably received by the Mint Director and recommended to MacVeagh to commission Fraser to complete the design. On July 10, 1912, Fraser brought models and electrotypes to a meeting with MacVeagh, who enthusiastically agreed with the final design.
On February 22, 1913, during a groundbreaking ceremony for the National American Indian Memorial, Staten Island, NY, the first nickels were distributed. The Buffalo nickel was officially released on March 4, 1913, with mixed reviews.
Shortly after production began, it was observed that dies were wearing three times faster than with the Liberty Head nickel design. Barber made revisions to the design to enlarge the words “FIVE CENTS” and modified the hill to flat ground on which the bison stands. These changes were not successful to lengthen die life, but further changes were denied.
A well-known variety in the series is the 1937–D “three-legged” nickel, on which one of the buffalo’s legs is missing. It is believed that this variety was caused by a pressman, Mr. Young, at the Denver Mint, who in seeking to remove marks from a reverse die (caused by the dies making contact with each other), accidentally removed or greatly weakened one of the animal’s legs. By the time Mint inspectors discovered and condemned the die, thousands of pieces had been struck and mixed with other coins.
Another variety is the 1938-D/S, caused by dies bearing an “S” mintmark being repunched with a “D” and used to strike coins at Denver. While the actual course of events is uncertain, the variety was created because Buffalo nickel dies intended for the San Francisco mint were repunched with the “D” and sent to Denver so they would not be wasted—no San Francisco Buffalo nickels were struck in 1938, but they were produced at Denver, and it was already known that a new design would be introduced. The 1938-D/S was the first repunched mintmark of any US coin to be discovered, causing great excitement among numismatists when the variety came to light in 1962.