How the Nickel Almost Lost Its Name

For the war effort, nickel was eliminated, copper was reduced and silver and manganese were added to the alloy of the 5-cent coin from 1942 through 1945. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

By Gerald Tebben

The Jefferson 5-cent coin went to war in 1942 and continued serving for the duration. Faced with the need to divert nickel and copper to the war effort after America’s entry into the Second World War, Mint officials experimented with numerous replacement materials for the metallic heart of the 5-cent coin in 1942.

Before the change, the 5-cent coin, despite its popular nickname as a “nickel” was—and still is—mostly copper. Prewar and postwar coins are 75 percent copper and just 25 percent nickel.

Production of 300 million 5-cent coins in 1941 consumed 870,000 pounds of nickel and 2.6 million pounds of copper, staggering amounts of metal that could be diverted to the production of war materials if substitutes could be found.

While melting down billions of existing 5-cent coins would have quickly released vast quantities of copper and nickel, Mint officials rejected recall suggestions as technologically too difficult to warrant consideration under early war-supply conditions.

The U.S. Mint first experimented with 50 percent silver, 50 percent nickel 5-cent coins, and even produced patterns. These coins, all of which were apparently destroyed, were of the same weight and diameter as the 1941 Jefferson 5-cent coins but slightly thinner. The 50-50 silver-nickel alloy the government initially calculated would result in a “seigniorage profit” of 1.2 cents per coin, substantially less than the seigniorage of 4.8 cents per 5-cent coin the Mint received in 1941.

Seigniorage is the difference between the face value of a specific coin and the costs to produce it.

With the prospects of no nickel in the “nickel,” Washington press reports, picked up by the monthly “Numismatic Scrapbook” magazine in March 1942, suggested new names for such a 5-cent coin: “sico” (for silver-copper), “cosi” (for copper-silver) and “jit” (standing for who knows what).

This 1943-D Jefferson 5-cent piece features the characteristic Denver Mint Mark above Monticello on the reverse. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

None of the new names ever went anywhere—the no-nickel nickel was still a nickel to the public.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed enabling legislation on March 28, 1942, but nothing ever came of the 50-50 silver-nickel 5-cent coin. Rising silver prices and vending-machine difficulties killed the coin before production could begin. Testing in late spring revealed that vending machines would not accept the proposed 5-cent coins.

The Mint added manganese to the mix to overcome the vending machine problem, but it still had to deal with the silver issue.

“Numismatic Scrapbook” reported in July: “The slug-reject mechanism in many machines makes up to eight different tests of a coin. After it has passed the size tests, then the piece bounces on a tiny anvil. If it is made of proper metals, it bounces just the right distance to land in a very powerful magnetic field. This magnetic field slows down genuine coins dropping them into a narrow slot, while ordinary slugs, traveling faster, go into the reject chute.”

Rising silver prices, though, were insurmountable, finally killing off the 50-50 coin in early summer. Silver was 35 cents an ounce when the project was conceived during the winter of 1941 and 1942, but it increased to 72 cents an ounce in mid-summer when coinage was supposed to start. Nickel, despite its status as a war material, sold for 31.5 cents a pound between 1942 and 1945.

Under the new increased silver prices, a 50 percent silver 5-cent coin would have contained more than 7 cents worth of the precious metal—enough to make the proposed coin a likely target of melting operations in the jewelry industry.

The Mint considered dropping silver entirely from the new coin, but it settled instead on an alloy of 35 percent silver, 9 percent manganese and 56 percent copper. Production at the Philadelphia Mint started Aug 18. The silver component was worth just shy of 5 cents, eliminating seigniorage, but low enough to make melting financially impractical.

These wartime alloy 5-cent coins, issued through 1945, have a large mintmark above Monticello on the reverse, including a “P” for the Philadelphia Mint—the first use of a mintmark for coins struck at that facility.

In the 1950s, hapless New Jersey counterfeiter Francis Henning—who faked Jefferson 5-cent coins, of all things—came undone after collectors noticed that his 1944 phonies lacked the prominent mintmark. Collectors prize those fakes today, paying $25 or so in under-the-counter transactions.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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