The History of the Buffalo Nickel - Part II
by Keith Scott
A buffalo (bison) named Black Diamond, who was a resident of the New York Zoological Park served as the model. Fraser utilized a little artistic freedom to depict the bison as though he was on the Great Plains. A few years after the release of the nickel, Black Diamond was sold to a meat packing plant who then sold him as Black Diamond steaks despite numerous attempts to save him. The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin convention during the 1980's.
The American Indian fascinated Fraser, so much so that it was no surprise he chose an Indian design for the 5-cent coin design. Fraser, who grew up in the Dakota Territory in the 1880's was a witness to the slaughter of the American buffalo and the destruction of the way of life of Native Americans of the Great Plains. By creating the Buffalo Nickel, Fraser was able to honor and preserve an important part of American history.
The preliminary sketches were very impressive and Mint Director George E. Roberts, who also had held that post when President Roosevelt revamped the coinage, was highly enthusiastic. Although the designs were, on general principle, quickly approved by Secretary MacVeagh, quite some time passed while various officials argued among themselves how the details should appear on the coin. By June 26, 1912, Roberts had tentatively approved plaster models of the new five-cent coin-although he did request that Fraser lower the relief somewhat.
During the summer of 1912, all was going well and a finished product was close at hand, or so it seemed. The Hobbs Company of New York, a manufacturer of coin-operated vending machines, got wind of the planned design change on the five-cent piece and wanted to review the designs for they feared the new design would not work in their vending machines.
Several months of bickering, changes, etc would ensue between Hobbs, Fraser, MacVeagh, etc. In December of 1912, MacVeagh grew tired of the mess and ordered that Fraser be allowed to complete his work. In late 1912/early 1913, models went to Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who oversaw the preparation of dies and the striking of pattern coins early in January 1913. It is known that Barber was cooperative in the effort, which was uncharacteristic of him considering that the coin being replaced was one he designed and he had no or little input into the new design.
All seemed well until, somehow, a pattern coin fell into the hands of one of the Hobbs folks and the design war began once again. Changes were asked and the Mint Bureau agreed. The changes were accommodated without sacrificing artistic creativity and once again all seemed well as it seemed the Hobbs folks were content. Again, so it seemed. Although the on-site engineer indicated that all seemed fine, once the engineer returned to company headquarters in New York, Hobbs' officials did an abrupt about-face. The company now wrote the Mint that the latest pattern was totally unacceptable-and produced a long list of additional changes that also would have to be made.
Fraser complained to MacVeagh about the circus-like atmosphere. MacVeagh tended to agree, and asked Mint Director Roberts to settle the matter quietly by not asking the artist to do anything more. Roberts saw the matter differently and ordered Fraser to work on the latest list of Hobbs' demands. It was now nearly the middle of February 1913, and there was no end in sight. The artist complained once again to the Treasury.
Finally, on February 15th, MacVeagh set up a final conference that was held with all interested parties with the end result being MacVeagh ordering an end to the matter and that the most recent designs be used. Production began on February 21, 1913 with a single coining press at the Philadelphia Mint started turning out the nickels at the rate of 120 a minute.
When the coins reached circulation, public reaction was mixed. Although MacVeagh promised the nickel would be "immensely interesting and beautiful." the New York Times condemned them as a "travesty on artistic effect." Other critics said that the coin's "rough" surfaces would encourage counterfeiters (I guess a nickel went a long way back then). Unfortunately, the biggest complaint, and one that would plague the nickel forever was the complaint about the nickels inability to withstand heavy use. One coin collectors' magazine predicted that the slightest wear would obliterate the date and the inscription Five Cents "beyond understanding." Sure enough, although now in circulation for only a month it was noticed that the lettering for the words 'FIVE CENTS' on the Buffalo Nickels was wearing away. The words were positioned within the outline of the raised mound on which the buffalo was standing. The early coins showed the bison standing on a grassy mound. For the new version, engraver Charles Barber cut away the base of the mound to make a straight line. He also lowered the words Five Cents so the rim would protect them from wear.
Collectors noticed right away that the inscription was clearer. But the changes did not help the date on the other side of the coin. Excessive wear of the numerals continued to plague Buffalo nickels. Barber again made minor modifications in 1916 by lowering the relief of the head and strengthening several details, including the nose. In addition, the lettering of the word LIBERTY was made heavier. Although the date problem was now well known, with all the modifications Barber made, he never addressed the problem of the date wearing down too rapidly. That was unfortunate as now we see all the games being played with acid, etc., in order to restore dates. More on acid date recovery later. By the end of 1937 planning for the Buffalo nickel's successor was well under way, as the design's required 25 years would end the following year. It was to be replaced by the third coin to bear a likeness of one of our presidents, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson nickel continues in production to this day
Keith Scott has been a collector for over 30 years and owns a small internet-based coin store at www.mountainviewcoins.com. Visit his website www.mountainviewcoins.com for a history of US coins, metal market updates and news about your favorite coins.