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The History of the "V" Liberty Nickel

The Liberty Nickel, commonly known as the “V” nickel for the Roman Numeral "V" on the reverse was officially produced from 1883 to 1912. We use the word officially because one of the most famous coins of all is the 1913 Liberty Nickel which was produced under suspect circumstances. For more on the famous 1913 Liberty Nickel please refer to the article titled “History of the Famous 1913 Liberty Nickel”.

 In 1881, A. Loudon Snowden, Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint directed Chief Engraver at the time, Charles Barber, to create designs for the cent, three-cent piece and the nickel. Snowden believed that all three coins should be similar in design and metal composition. The designs created by Barber were all simple in appearance with Lady Liberty on the obverse and a Roman Numeral I, III or V on the reverse to represent the denomination. Barber completed the request later that year with all three coins stuck in copper-nickel which was the same as the Shield Nickel currently in circulation. The Shield Nickel, introduced in 1866, was the first “nickel” sized coin. The half-dime, made of silver, had previously filled the need for this denomination. The Shield Nickel was well received despite the fact that during this time period, consumers liked their coinage in silver and/or gold. And although the nickel was relatively new, its bland design made it ripe for a redesign. Additionally, during this time period, there was not yet a federal law establishing the minimum life expectancy for US coin designs.

Changing the cent, three-cent piece and nickel was not to be. Congress opposed a change in composition to the cent and the Treasury would not approve a design change for the three-cent piece. The three-cent silver piece has been discontinued several years before and the three-cent nickel, with the exception of 1881 had seen declining mintage numbers. With the nickel seeming to be the only viable option for change, Barber and Snowden concentrated on making the change to the nickel a reality. In addition to a design/appearance change, Snowden also changed the size from 20.5 mm in diameter to 21.2 mm. Snowden believed that by increasing the diameter and reducing the thickness (the weight stayed the same), die life would be extended.

After all the finishing touches were complete, there was a special ceremony on January 30th, 1883 to introduce the new nickel. Those who attended, and were deemed important, received first strike coins. A few days later, regular production began. The new nickels had hardly been circulated when a major problem surfaced. The coin did not contain the word “cents” and con artists of the day were plating the nickel with gold and passing them off as $5.00 gold pieces. Because the nickel was still new, the general public was not aware of the new nickel and since the “V” was the only symbol of value, it could mean 5 cents or 5 dollars. Unfortunately for the mint, nearly 5 ½ million nickels had already been produced and released. Barber quickly created a new design, this one with the word cents prominently displayed on the back. The first nickels soon became known as the “no cents” nickels. The nickels that were gold plated became known as “racketeer nickels” and can still be found in old hoards and collections.

In the end, over 16 million nickels were produced in 1883. Even though far more 1883 nickels with the word “cents” were produced, they are harder to get in good grades. The “no cents” variety was saved by people thinking that they would be recalled/replaced.

After this initial controversy, the Liberty Nickel settled down to a calm life. There were no significant changes during the life span of the nickel, and for all but the final year, all the nickels were made in Philadelphia. In the final year of official production, 1912, nickels were also made in Denver and San Francisco. 1913 gave way to the Buffalo Nickel followed by changed in the dime, quarter and half dollar.

Keith Scott has been a collector for over 30 years. His website has US coins for sale. He also writes Coin Collecting Articles for fun. Visit his websites for a history of US coins, metal market updates and news about your favorite coins.

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