The U.S. nickel is a five-cent coin struck by the U.S. Mint. First issued in 1866, the coin is composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel.
The silver half dime, worth five cents, had been issued since the 1790s. The American Civil War created economic difficulty and led to gold and silver going out of circulation. Initially, the government issued paper currency in place of low-value coins. However, after the successful introduction of two-cent and three-cent pieces without precious metal, Congress authorized the five-cent piece composed of base metal.
There have been several versions of the nickel released over the years. Here are a few notable examples:
Shield nickel (1866-1883) - The shield nickel was the first version of the nickel released in 1866. It was designed by the U.S. Mint's Chief Engraver, James B. Longacre. The obverse side features a shield surmounted by a cross, while the reverse side features a numeral 5 surrounded by stars. The design was widely criticized, and the American Journal of Numismatics even described it as "the ugliest of all known coins."
Liberty Head or "V" nickel (1883-1913) - In 1881, Philadelphia Mint Superintendent Archibald Loudon Sowden ordered Mint Engraver Charles Barber to produce new designs for a cent, three-cent, and five-cent pieces. Snowden required that the new coins' obverse side feature the head of Liberty with the inscription "LIBERTY," with the nickel's reverse to feature a wreath of wheat, cotton, and corn around a Roman numeral "V" or 5. The Liberty Head was heavily struck during the thirty years of its circulation.
Buffalo or Indian Head nickel (1913-1938) - On May 4, 1911, Eames MacVeigh, son of Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeigh, wrote a letter to his father recommending that he take the opportunity to beautify the design of the nickel. Soon after the MacVeigh's letter, it was announced that the Mint would solicit new designs for the nickel. Sculptor James Earle Fraser approached the mint with a design that featured a Native American on the obverse side and a bison on the reverse side. The Buffalo nickel was released into circulation on March 4, 1913, and quickly gained acclaim for depicting strong American themes.
Jefferson nickel (1938-present) - In January 1938, the U.S. Mint announced an open competition to design the new nickel, with a $1,000 prize for the winner. On April 24, Felix Schlag was announced as the winner. His design featured the portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the obverse side, with his house Monticello on the reverse side.