Who is on the Nickel?

The third American president Thomas Jefferson is the current face of the U.S. five-cent coin. Jefferson first appeared on the obverse of the nickel coins in 1938. Since then, the nickel's design changed twice, once in 2005 and another time in 2006.

Jefferson Nickel - Current Design


Thomas Jefferson - History and Milestones

Thomas Jefferson was an American Founding Father, the main author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809).

One reason Jefferson is on the nickel is precisely the fact that he was the third president of the United States. In addition, he helped create the money system for the US and was one of the earliest Americans to consider a decimal currency.

History of the Five-Cent Coin

The US Mint's establishment in 1792 mandated that all coins, with the exception of the Cent and Half-Cent, be composed of precious metals like gold or silver.

The first five-cent coin, more popularly known as the Half-Dime (or Half-Disme), was predominantly made of silver, not nickel.

In 1866, the five-cent coin's composition was altered to include copper-nickel, which is when the coin earned the nickname "nickel." It's important to note that the silver five-cent coins were not phased out until 1873, resulting in a seven-year coexistence of both versions of the denomination.

The new nickel was larger than the silver half-dime and easier to handle.

Introduction of Nickel Coins and Composition

Mint Director James Pollock had been opposed to striking coins containing nickel, but in view of the initial success of the copper-nickel three-cent piece, he became an advocate of striking five-cent pieces in the same base metal.

In his 1865 report, Pollock wrote, "From this nickel alloy, a coin for the denomination of five cents, and which would be a popular substitute for the five-cent note, could easily be made ... [The five-cent coin should be struck in base metal] only until the resumption of specie payments ... in time of peace ... coins of inferior alloy should not be permitted to take place permanently of silver in the coinage of pieces above the denomination of three cents."

Previous Designs

From 1792 to 1873, the obverse of the Half-Dime coins depicted different representations of Lady Liberty. However, as the Half-Dimes are considered a different type of coin according to most numismatic experts, we won't go into details in this article.

The first design on the five-cent coin using cupronickel was the Shield Nickel, which was struck from 1866 until 1883, when it was replaced by the Liberty Head Nickel.

Struck and put into circulation in 1883, the Liberty Head Nickel depicted a bust of Lady Liberty on the obverse of the coin, while the reverse showed a stylized Roman numeral “V” for five. 

From 1913 to 1938, the United States Mint produced the “Buffalo” nickel, designed by James Earle Fraser. The obverse showed the bust of a native american chief, and the reverse depicted an American bison.

According to the American Numismatic Association, in 1938, Buffalo nickels were only made in the Denver mint, and the Jefferson design was released late in the same year. Therefore, there were very low mintage figures in that year of the Jefferson Nickels at the Denver and San Francisco mints.

Introduction of the Jefferson Nickel

The Buffalo nickel (also known as the Indian Head nickel) had just completed its mandatory twenty-five-year circulation. So Franklin D. Roosevelt, as an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Mint, announced a contest to design a coin in honor of the third President.

Normally, the Mint's chief engraver was responsible for creating American coins, but for the Jefferson five-cent piece, they organized a contest to choose a suitable design.

The Treasury Department chose the artist, Felix Schlag. He was awarded $1,000 for submitting the winning design for the Jefferson Nickel.

Jefferson Nickel Reverse Designs

Building a Jefferson Nickel collection can be a rewarding and educational experience for coin collectors, as it provides a glimpse into American history and the evolution of coin designs.

During World War II, nickel was needed in the war efforts. Therefore, the U.S. Mint eliminated the nickel content.

Between the years 1942 and 1945, the new nickels were struck with an alloy of 35% silver, 56% copper, and 9% manganese.

These silver nickels are some of the most desired coins among collectors.

The Westward Journey Nickel Series

Louisiana Purchase/Peace Medal

In 2004 and 2005, the Jefferson Nickels celebrated the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The reverse design of the new coin portrays a rendition of the reverse of the original Jefferson Peace Medal designed in 1801 by John Reich. It shows two clasped hands, symbolizing peace and friendship.

The hand with a military uniform cuff represents the American government, while the hand with the American eagle represents the Native American community.

Jefferson Nickel - Louisiana Purchase



This reverse design shows a keelboat with a full sail that transported members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are in full uniform in the bow.

Jefferson Nickel - Keelboat


American Bison

The reverse of the buffalo nickel depicts an American bison, more commonly known as a buffalo. This animal is important to many Native American cultures.

The Buffalo nickel design first appeared in 2005 in recognition of Jefferson's role in the Louisiana Purchase and in commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition. It shows a design based on Jefferson's bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon.

The "Liberty" inscription is based on Thomas Jefferson's handwriting.

Jefferson Nickel - American Bison


Ocean in View

This is the last of the four-coin series.

The Pacific Ocean is depicted on the reverse side of the nickel design, inspired by Andrew E. Cier's photograph of the rocky western coastline. The inscription "Ocean in view! O! The Joy!" on the nickel commemorates the excitement felt upon finally sighting land after a grueling journey at sea.

Jefferson Nickel - Ocean in View


Current Design Specifications


Obverse design: Since 2006, the depiction of Thomas Jefferson on the coin has been based on a portrait completed in 1800 by Rembrandt Peale. Peale's portrait served as the foundation for most depictions of Jefferson that were created during his lifetime.

Inscriptions: IN GOD WE TRUST, LIBERTY (in cursive, based on Jefferson's handwriting), Year


  • Sculptor: Donna Weaver, Sculptor-Engraver
  • Designer: Jamie Franki, Artistic Infusion Program


Reverse design: The coin design showcases the classic Monticello rendition that artist Felix Schlag created in 1938. However, the current version has added more detail and relief to the dome, balconies, door, and windows, enhancing the overall appearance of the design.


Monticello was Jefferson's home in Virginia.

Designer: Felix Schlag


  • Denver and Philadelphia: uncirculated and circulating coins.
  • San Francisco: proof coins

Interesting Facts about the Nickel

The U.S. Mint produces nickels in circulation, as well as in uncirculated and proof finishes for collectors.

Since the Coinage Act of 1965, all United States coins and currency, including nickel coins and pennies, are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues. Prior to that, only coins made of precious metals had that status.

Thomas Jefferson's portrait has remained a constant feature on the nickel coin, making it a symbol of America's cultural heritage and rich history. For those who enjoy coin collecting, the nickel is not only a valuable addition to their collection, but also a fascinating piece of American history.

Other Presidents on American Coinage

Jefferson was not the only president to ever appear on american coinage. The first US President, George Washington, is on the quarter. And the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, is on the one-cent piece, also known as the penny.

President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned sculptor Victor David Brenner to design the penny with Lincoln on it.

According to the National Museum of American History, the Half-Dollar coin representing John F. Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, was conceived on the day of his assassination. JFK was shot to death on Nov. 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.

Within hours of the assassination, Mint Director Eva Adams spoke with Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts about depicting Kennedy on a coin, the museum reports. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy chose the half-dollar for the denomination of the commemorative coin.

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Mo Menezes
Mo Menezes
Researcher and Contributor

Murilo (Mo) Menezes is an attorney and tenured English professor. His passion for economics and coinage led him to the gold and silver industry where he writes in-depth articles about collectible coins; as well as coin news and investing articles...