The 150th anniversary of the first non-precious nickel American coins
Minting of Shield nickel was authorized by the US Congress on May 16, 1866. The first copper-nickel alloy coin of USA was a five-cent piece. New coins were to replace US silver coins called half dime with the same denomination. Golden and silver coins were struck from the very start of America’s history had almost vanished from circulation during the Civil War. Precious metal coins were often hoarded. So the Congress decided to produce low-denomination coins in base metal with their face value been much higher than their intrinsic value. Circulation of US silver coins was completely abolished in 1873.
The idea of using nickel in alloy for the new American coins belongs to an industrialist, who had interest in selling nickel to the state. The nickname of the piece is caused by the image of a shield on its obverse, similar to the design of two-cent coins. Although some called Shield nickel’s design “very patriotic”, others criticized it a lot comparing it with a tombstone. Shield nickel was significantly heavier than previous ones.
The copper-nickel alloy occurred to be hard for striking and the coins had poor quality. Dies for five-cent nickels wore out very fast and were changed more often than any other ones, so the design of the Shield nickel has much more varieties than other US coins for sale ever did. Numismatic historians have found over sixty distinct doubled die varieties of Shield nickel with different errors, repunched dates etc. Limited editions of nickels were also struck in proof specimens for collectors.
The Shield nickel coins were issued till 1883; then new design of the five-cent pieces called the Liberty Head nickel was presented. It’s remarkable that current American coins are issued out of the same metal alloy the first Shield nickel was.