When President George Washington spoke to the House of Representatives in 1792, he reinforced the country’s need for small coinage in circulation and commended the creation of a national mint. Among the first silver coins officially struck in the country were the half dimes, the first coin with a face value of five cents apiece in US Dollar.
In the 1860s, due to the inflation of silver prices, lobbying for the use of nickel in coinage grew strong and the half dimes were replaced by the nickel, a new 5-cent coin made with a copper-nickel alloy, and the use of silver was discontinued for that denomination and it wouldn’t be for almost another century for its return under a very specific circumstance.
In 1940, the United States started providing military supplies and indirectly assisting the Allies in their efforts against the Axis powers, but it was only in January of 1942 that American troops officially joined the battle in World War II. With the war raging, demand for nickel increased for the production of tank armor plates, for anti-aircraft guns and ordnance, and for the crafting of portable bridges.
In order to be able to meet the increased demand for nickel due to the war, Congress authorized the US Mint to produce nickels with a composition of copper and up to 50% silver. The alloy could be altered (as long as it didn’t surpass the 50% limit for silver) for practical reasons, the main one being the concern that the new-minted coins wouldn’t be recognized by vending machines. The US Mint settled with an alloy of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese, which ensured the nickels wouldn’t be rejected by coin-operated devices.
In 1938, the Jefferson design replaced the Buffalo design on the five-cent coin that had been in mintage for 25 years, which wasn’t very popular at the time. So the US Mint was quick to change it once they were allowed to do so.
In anticipation of Thomas Jefferson’s bicentennial, the Mint held a competition to decide on a design that could honor the Founding Father and 3rd President of the United States.
The winner was Felix Schlag, a German-born American sculptor. His design was based on the bust of Thomas Jefferson sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon, present at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The bust on the obverse is facing left (in the viewer’s perspective), with the motto “In God We Trust” engraved on the outer circle on the left, and the word “Liberty” with the mint year on the right.
The reverse is a portrait of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house that he supposedly designed himself. The motto “E Pluribus Unum” is inscribed above the building, with the denomination “Five Cents” below and the country’s name, United States of America.
Specifically, in the silver nickels, the mintmark (either P, D, or S) is placed on the reverse, above Monticello.
An interesting fact is that Felix Schlag, the designer, forgot to include his initials on the design. They would only be permanently added to the design in 1966.
The Schlag design for the Jefferson Nickel was discontinued in 2004.
How long was silver used in nickels?
The 5-cent pieces with 35% silver in their composition would be minted for four years, from 1942 to 1945. With the end of the war, demand for nickel decreased back to normality and the US Mint went back to the copper-nickel alloy (75% copper and 25% nickel) in 1946.
Because of their limited mintage and their story related to World War II, these silver nickels are, sometimes, referred to as the “War Nickel”.
How much is a silver nickel worth?
In terms of melt value, the silver content within the silver War Nickel is worth around $1.50. Nonetheless, its true value comes from its numismatic appeal, in other words, how much the coin would be worth to coin collectors or to a coin dealer, and that includes its mint condition.
An MS-68 specimen from 1942 with the Philadelphia mint mark has sold for more than $4,000 at Heritage Auctions. Make sure to check our lists of coin price guides if you would like more information on the silver nickel value.
How to identify silver nickels?
The most basic way to identify if a nickel is made of silver is to look at the mint year. Only the copper-silver-manganese composition was used from 1942 to 1945.
However, it’s also possible to identify them by looking at the mintmark. Only the silver nickels carried the mint mark on the reverse, on top of Monticello. The change was made in order to make these coins easily identifiable because the initial idea was to remove them from circulation once the copper-nickel alloy could be used again. This removal never happened, though, as the silver nickels continued circulating.
What other US coins are made of silver?
Up until 1964, silver was used in the composition of the dime, quarter, half-dollar, and dollar coins. It was only in 1965 that the precious metal was fully removed from US coinage due to its increasing value.
Pre 1965 silver coins are sometimes called “junk silver”, but that is not in accordance with their value, but mostly because of their natural wear.
Still, pre-1965 dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars are minted with 90% silver alloy and, nowadays, are purchased as an investment. Those can include:
- Barber Dimes (1892-1916);
- Mercury Dimes (1916-1945);
- Roosevelt Dimes (1946-1964);
- Barber Quarters (1892-1916);
- Standing Liberty Quarters (1916-1930);
- Washington Quarters (1932-1964);
- Half dollars:
- Barber Half Dollars (1892-1916);
- Walking Liberty Half Dollars (1916-1947);
- Franklin Half Dollars (1948-1963);
- Kennedy Half Dollars (1964);
- Silver dollars;
- Morgan Silver Dollars (1878-1904, 1921);
- Peace Silver Dollars (1921-1928, 1934-1935).
Junk silver, or Constitutional Silver, can be purchased at very little premiums over the silver spot price and are seen by experts as a sensible way to increase one’s physical silver holdings in order to diversify an investment portfolio.
If you are interested in investing in 90% silver coins, or you are an avid coin collector, looking to add some numismatic items to your collection, make sure to browse through our products in stock. Also, one of our customer support representatives is available over the phone or through our live web chat feature to solve any questions you might have. We will be happy to assist you.