Shield Nickels 1866-1883 Coin Guide
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Shield Nickels 1866-1883
Union and Confederate guns fell silent in April 1865, but the civilian
population was slow to give up certain behavior acquired during the four
years of bloody civil war. No one in the North felt especially charitable
toward the South, and few seriously considered rebuilding what industry
had existed there before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861.
Specie payments had been suspended by the government in 1862 and peace
had not seen the return of silver or gold coins to circulation. Citizens
continued to hoard all forms of coinage that contained precious metal, and
even copper-nickel cents were set aside for their limited intrinsic value.
During the war the federal government issued series after series of
fractional currency. These "shinplasters" as they were known,
rapidly soiled in circulation and were despised by the public. When yet
another five-cent issue of fractional currency was introduced in 1865, it
was enough to push Mint Director James Pollock to endorse a five-cent coin
made of nickel.
Pollock had previously been an opponent of nickel coinage. He'd seen
firsthand how difficult 12% nickel coins (the 1857-64 cents) were to
strike and how the hard, brittle metal broke dies and injured the Mint's
machinery. He also knew how politically persuasive one Joseph Wharton was
in the halls of Congress. Wharton owned the largest nickel mine in America
and had lobbied Congress for many years to use the metal in the nation's
But after the third issue of five-cent fractional currency was released
to unfavorable public opinion, Pollock was finally convinced that the
nation's best interests would be served by striking a new five-cent coin
in nickel, even if it meant adding to the already wide assortment of small
denomination coins then in use. These included the half cent, large cent,
copper-nickel cent, two-cent piece, nickel three-cent piece, silver
three-cent piece and silver half-dime. (Most of these coins were not
circulating due to wartime hoarding). Pollock looked at the nickel
five-cent piece as a temporary measure-a coin that would circulate and
replace the universally unpopular fractional notes until such a time as
the silver half-dime could return to circulation.
As Chief Engraver it fell to James Longacre to design the new coin.
Various patterns were executed, the most interesting ones featuring
profiles of Washington or Lincoln, but the issue of portraying actual
persons on coinage was far from resolved. In fact it was a particularly
sensitive subject; the five-cent fractional currency the new coins would
replace depicted the likeness of Spencer M. Clark, then head of the
Currency Bureau, not the explorer William Clark as Congress had been led
Unable to use a portrait, Longacre merely modified the motif he'd used
a couple years earlier on the two-cent piece. Although the adopted design
does have a certain geometric balance, it is artistically weak. Even
nickel monopolist Joseph Wharton, the man who stood to make more money
than anyone else from the new coin, was disappointed. He described the
coin as having " . . . a tombstone surmounted by a cross overhung by
The design was actually a shield with the cross of the Order of
Calatrava at the top, flanked by a wreath on both sides. The reverse,
while simply designed, was initially controversial. The central device
shows a large numeral 5 and is surrounded by thirteen stars with thirteen
sets of rays between the stars. At the time of issue, some believed
Southern sympathizers had infiltrated the Mint and placed the Confederate
"Stars and Bars" on the reverse.
The new coins seldom struck up well, and more dies were broken striking
Shield nickels than all other denominations added together. During the
first two years of issue the rays were retained on the reverse, but early
in 1867 they were eliminated. as Mint officials believed this design
element prevented the coins from striking up completely.
As originally proposed, the nickel five-cent piece was to weigh not
more than 60 grains (or 3.88 grams expressed metrically) and be composed
of 75% copper and 25% nickel. The House Coinage Committee intended for the
new coin's weight to be expressed in metric units but could not bring
itself to publicly state so. The next metric weight would have been four
grams, but this unit was mysteriously bypassed, and five grams was the
weight adopted. But rather than express the weight in this simple term,
the enabling legislation required the coin weigh 77.16 grains, the English
equivalent of five grams!
Shield nickels were struck only at the Philadelphia Mint, and more than
126 million were produced from 1866 until the next design change in 1883.
For such a short-lived series there are a surprising number of rarities.
The two key issues are from 1877 and 1878, when only proofs were struck.
Among business strikes, the years 1879-1881 are low mintage dates and
worth large premiums in all grades. There are two overdates, the 1879/8-an
overdated proof-and the 1883/2.
Proofs were struck every year and include one of the most important
19th century rarities-the proof 1867 nickel with rays. Only 25 pieces are
believed to have been struck.
Counterfeits are plentiful bearing the dates 1870-76, and they were
widely circulated in the New York-New Jersey area during the 1870s. They
are not deceptive, however, as the design differs slightly from genuine
Striking details are often ill-defined on Shield nickels, and high
grade coins that are weakly struck must be graded by the amount of mint
luster still remaining. The points to first show wear are the cross and
leaves on the obverse and the numeral 5 on the reverse.
Shield nickels are collected by both date and type collectors. Although
a relatively shortlived series, it's challenging to collect by date
because of the scarce, low mintage issues. Assembling sets of fully struck
coins by date, however, can be somewhat frustrating. Type collectors
usually acquire one example each of the Rays and No Rays design.
In 1883 the Shield nickel was dropped in favor of one featuring Charles
Barber's new Greco-Roman head of Liberty. The Shield nickel, though, was
the first nickel five-cent piece, and while the design has changed several
times since 1866, the basic 5-gram "nickel" has remained a
mainstay of our modern coinage system.
Diameter: 20.5 millimeters Weight: 5 grams Composition: .750 copper,
.250 nickel Edge: Plain
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Bowers, Q. David, United States Coins by
Design Types, An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor, Bowers and
Merena, Wolfeboro, NH, 1986. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York,
1988. Carothers, Neil, Fractional Money, A History of Small Coins and
Fractional Paper Currency of the United States, John Wiley & Sons,
London, 1930. Fletcher, Edward L., Jr., The Shield Five Cent Series: A
Comprehensive Listing of Known Varieties, Dead End Publishing, Ormond
Beach, FL, 1994. Peters, Gloria & Mohon, Cynthia, The Complete Guide
to Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, DLRC Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 1995.
Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Arco Publishing Co., New York,
1966. Wescott, Michael, with Keck, Kendall, The United States Nickel
Five-Cent Piece, Bowers and Merena, Wolfeboro, NH, 1991.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.