In the last Coin History article, we looked at the 1943 Lincoln Cent and its change from a copper to steel coin because of the needs for the United States military during World War II. Today we look at another coin that was altered temporarily because of the war, the Jefferson Nickel. Commonly referred to as the Jefferson War Nickel, the five-cent piece for the country underwent an alloy change from 1942 through 1945 that saw a reduction in the use of nickel. Nickel was a key material for the military.
The history of the Jefferson war nickel begins on March 27, 1942. On that day, Congress authorized a metallurgical change to the Nickel with a change that could include as much as 50% copper and 50% silver. Fortunately the law also give the United States Mint authority to vary the proportions of metals used, which the Mint took advantage of from March through to October 1942. The Mint’s main concern was that it would find an alloy composition that would be suitable to the public but would also satisfy counterfeit detectors in vending machines. Eventually they came up with the right combination to satisfy the need. The new Nickel would consist of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. With the new alloy finalized, production of the new Nickel began in October 1942.
As an interesting sidebar, a key reason the 1943 Lincoln Cent was changed to steel was to cut down on the use of copper, another critical war time material. While it did not completely eliminate copper in the Jefferson Nickel, it did cut it down drastically. Prior to 1942, the Jefferson Nickel contained 75% copper so, while it was still used in the Nickel from 1942-1945, it was 19% less. It is debated if the change actually had a meaningful contribution to the war effort.
Another unique feature of the Jefferson war nickels is the mint mark size and location. The mint had hoped to make these temporary – and silver containing – Nickels easy to withdraw after the war. To do this, the Mint changed the location of the mint mark from Obverse, just below the date, to the Reverse above the Monticello dome. The mint also made the mint mark considerably larger to easily distinguish them. Finally, for the first time, the P mint mark for the Philadelphia Mint appeared on a coin for the first time in United States history.
The plan was great in theory but did not actually perform well. Yes the Mint was able to withdraw some of these war nickels in the late 40s and early 50s, but because they were easy to identify, many people kept them for their silver content. That, 77 years after the fact, has made finding these war nickels in high grades relatively inexpensive.
From 1942 to 1945, production of the war composition Nickel was roughly on par with pre-war production. In those three years, 869.896 million of them were produced. The 1943-P Nickel had the highest production at 271.165 million being produced. The lowest production was the 1943-D which saw just 15.294 million minted.
Because of the average production numbers and people holding onto the coins, finding samples of these in high grades is easy. For example, you can pick up a 1943-D Nickel, the lowest production of the series, for $17 (Affiliate Link). The high production 1943-P can be found for $16 (Affiliate Link). You can buy a complete set of the war nickels for $169 in BU grade (Affiliate Link). That makes these special series of Jefferson Nickels affordable for just about everyone.
For more history on United States coins, be sure to check out the Coin History series here on USCoinNews.com