World War II began in earnest on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. This act of aggression from Germany led Britain and France to declare war on Hitler’s Nazi state. From the German invasion of Poland until the war ended with Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945, most nations of the world were in some way engaged in armed combat.
The United States formally entered the war on December 8, 1941, a day after Japan attacked the U.S. naval fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The massive war effort that circumnavigated the globe required many natural resources to feed the military endeavors of all nations involved. Petroleum was needed to fuel military vehicles, ships, and aircraft. A variety of metals from steel to aluminum to nickel were required to build military machines and munitions.
The United States made Indian Head nickels from 1913 until 1938. These nickels were still circulating when World War II broke out in 1939. The United States Mint produced over 6 million Indian Head nickels in 1938. The Denver Mint facility produced the entire production run of 1938 Indian Head nickels before they were replaced with the Jefferson nickel that same year.
The United States first minted the nickel five-cent piece in 1866 with a prominent heraldic shield on the obverse. The law dictated that the five-cent coin must be composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel, with a diameter of 20.5 mm and have a weight of 5 grams. In 1883, the mint increased the diameter to 21.2 mm, changed the design to feature a stoic image of Lady Liberty, and maintained the current metallic composition and weight.
Why the Change in Composition?
The United States Mint falls under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department of the United States of America. It is only authorized to produce coinage as dictated by law. Therefore, any change to the specifications of United States coins must be authorized by Congress and approved by the President.
Pennies and nickels were the workhorses of the United States economy by giving merchants and businesses the ability to make small change. Nickel production around this time in history averaged over a quarter of a billion nickels per year. Given that the composition of the five-cent coin consisted of 25% nickel and 75% copper, this alloy mixture used a tremendous amount of strategic metal for coinage.
The metal element nickel was used in military armor to strengthen it and inhibit rust and corrosion. Copper was used by the military to manufacture shell casings for ammunition. Any reduction in the use of these two metals would aid in the United States effort to win World War II. Experts estimated that changes to the composition of United States coins saved approximately 435 tons of nickel and copper.
Public Law 507, Title XII - Coinage Of 5-Cent Pieces, of March 27, 1942, gave the Treasury Department and the United States Mint the authority to change the composition of the United States five cent coin. The law suggested an alloy of 50% silver and 50% copper but stated that the director of the mint could vary the proportions of silver and copper and add other metals as required to maintain the integrity of the coinage.
Before The United States Mint changed the composition of the Jefferson nickel, they performed many scientific tests and experiments. During the developmental stage, U.S. Mint scientists discovered that certain coin-operated machines had detectors that not only measured standard weight and diameter but also measured the electrical resistance of the standard alloy of 75% copper and 25% nickel.
Therefore, the scientists had to create an alloy that maintained the current diameter, weight, and electrical resistance for the nickels to work in vending machines. After many tests, it was found that an alloy of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese met all the requirements of the vending machine industry.
In late 1937 the Treasury Department invited all American sculptors to compete in a design competition for the new five-cent coin to be known as the "Jefferson Nickel." The department informed competitors of the specific legal and other conditions that must be accurately complied with for their design to be considered.
Although the Treasury Department previously held several contests to design coinage, none of them had resulted in any changes to the circulating coinage of the United States. This time, the competition was open to all American sculptors and artists. The rules were explicit and even required the submission of plaster models no larger than 8-1/2 inches representing the artist's interpretation of the obverse and reverse of the coin.
The basic design requirements dictated that the obverse of the coin feature an authentic portrait of Thomas Jefferson. The reverse had to include a prominent image of Monticello, Jefferson's historic home near Charlottesville, Virginia. Even the specific mottos and inscriptions were dictated.
The contest closed on April 15, 1938. Art judges reviewed 390 plaster models featuring various artistic interpretations of Thomas Jefferson and his Monticello home. On April 24, it was revealed that Felix Schlag (1891-1974) was the winner of the contest. However, the rule stipulated that the artist had to facilitate and modify any changes as dictated by the Treasury Department or the United States Mint.
The Commission of Fine Arts objected to Schlag's modernistic interpretation of Monticello. It originally featured a three-quarters corner view of Jefferson's home with a stylistic tree to the left. Additionally, they objected to the typography Schlag used in his design.
The mint requested that Schlag abandon his three-quarter view of Monticello for a direct head-on view of the building. The plain and simple interpretation of Schlag's revised interpretation of Monticello was very similar to Marcello Rotundo's competitive submission for the reverse of the coin. Regardless, it was Schlag who took home the $1,000 prize and garnered all of the publicity for being the designer of the Jefferson nickel.
Valuable Errors and Varieties
As with any coin produced by the United States Mint, it is possible that errors and die varieties are produced. Check your war nickels for the following popular die varieties:
- 1943-P 3 Over 2
Look for a shadow of the numeral 2 lurking behind the last digit of the date. It is most prominent at the bottom of the numeral.
- 1943-P Doubled Die Obverse
This variety is also known as the "Doubled Eye" nickel. Look for the remnants of Jefferson's eye just below the ridge of his nose.
- 1945-P Doubled Die Reverse
The most prominent area of doubling is easily seen on the letters of MONTICELLO. It is most prominent on the right portion of the word.
War Nickel Values
Each war nickel contains 0.056 Troy ounces of pure silver (.05626 t oz. ASW). Therefore, any time that silver has a value greater than $1.00 per Troy ounce, a nickel is worth more for its silver value than its purchasing power. War Nickels are easily identified by the large mint mark (P, D, or S) located on the reverse above the dome of Monticello. Traditionally, the Philadelphia mint never used a mintmark because it was the home production facility of the United States Mint. However, 1942 marked the first time that a "P" was used to identify a coin made at the Philadelphia mint.
|Date & Mint||Circ. Buy||Circ. Sell||Unc. Buy||Unc. Sell|
|War Time Silver Alloy (40% silver)|
|1943-P 3 over 2||$32.00||$16.00||$300.00||$210.00|