Shield Nickel 5 Cents - American Civil War Coins
The Shield Nickel 5 Cents Coin was the first of its kind
that used copper and nickel in coinage. The U.S. five cent coins used to
be made out of the precious silver but with the break out of the
American Civil War in 1861, silver supply diminished and became very
expensive. The U.S. Mint had to think of a cheaper alternative to
continue producing the five cent piece.
Although Nickel is a hard metal and difficult to strike at that time,
its use for coinage was successfully pursued through the persistent
lobbying of Joseph Wharton. Mr. Joseph Wharton was a well-known
industrialist from Philadelphia who had a lot to gain if nickel was to
be chosen as the replacement of silver in the coinage of the five cent
coins. He was an owner of a nickel mine in Pennsylvania and a nickel
manufacturing company in New Jersey. His companies earned a lot of money
especially when the U.S. Congress mandated that the new coin should be
heavier than the usual specification of the Mint for such denomination.
Heavier coin meant more nickel profit for Wharton.
The new nickel five cent coin was designed by the chief engraver of the
Mint at that time, Mr. James Barton Longacre. Due to the urgency of the
task, Mr. Longacre just based the new coin design on his old design for
the two cent piece. He just made a few alterations on the old shield
design, which have long served as a symbol of a strong and united
America. Mr. Longacre refined the design by removing the banner on top
of the shield, on which the phrase “In God We Trust” is inscribed, but retaining the inscription. He also transferred the two arrows
from top to the bottom sides of the shield and added instead, a cross on
The result was a cleaner and more sophisticated obverse design on the
new five cent piece, which was even considered as the most patriotic
U.S. coin design. The reverse or tail side of the coin, however, was not
much of an art. It was a simple number 5 circled by 13 stars and 13
vertical stripes, with the words United States of America and cents around the edge of the coin.
This first design was short-lived, started in 1866 and ended the
following year when a redesign was required due to the difficulty of
striking it on the copper-nickel alloy. The vertical stripes, or rays in
between the stars on the reverse, were removed in the hope that it would
make the coin easier to strike. That did not solve the problem but
instead caused several coin varieties of the Shield Nickel until the
Mint finally gave up called off the coin’s production in 1876.