The History of the Liberty Head Nickel, part 2

1883 Liberty Head Nickel

A design crisis arose almost immediately. On the reverse of the coin the denomination was represented by a large “V,” the Roman numeral for five (and the origin of the Liberty Head Nickel’s other popular name, the V Nickel). The word “cents” did not appear on the coin because no one had thought it was necessary. Unfortunately, the Liberty Head Nickel was not much smaller than the current five-dollar gold piece, and a few dishonest people were gold plating the new nickel and passing it off successfully in rural stores as a five-dollar coin. (Supposedly one of these con artists was a deaf-mute named Josh Tatum, and according to the story this is the origin of the word “josh,” meaning “to fool.”) Mint officials were very concerned by these “racketeer nickels,” so production of the Liberty Head Nickel was abruptly stopped while Barber adjusted the design yet again, making room on the reverse side for the word “cents.”

The History of the Liberty Head Nickel

1883 Liberty Head Nickel

The Liberty Head Nickel (often called the V Nickel) is a U.S. five-cent coin that was designed by Charles Barber, the Chief Engraver at the U.S. Mint. Over half a billion Liberty Head Nickels were minted between 1883 and 1912.

Earlier U.S. coins had been minted from precious metals that were worth approximately the value of the coin — for example, a three cent silver coin contained about three cents worth of silver. But there was great economic uncertainty after the Civil War and it was decided that it might be a better idea to mint coins from less valuable metal so that the resulting coins wouldn’t be hoarded. Thanks in part to political pressure from the nickel mining lobby, Congress passed laws in 1865 and 1866 authorizing the Mint to create new three-cent and five-cent coins using a copper/nickel alloy (75% copper, 25% nickel).