A Brief History of the Nickel – by Daniel A. Gross (Smithsonian Magazine – April 28, 2016)


In honor of the coin’s 150th anniversary, read up on how the nickel came to be minted

The nickel wasn’t always worth five cents. In 1865, the U.S. nickel was a three-cent coin. Before that, “nickel cents” referred to alloy pennies. It turns out that even the name “nickel” is misleading. “Actually, nickels should be called ‘coppers,’” says coin expert Q. David Bowers. Today’s so-called nickels are 75 percent copper.

Those aren’t the only surprises hidden in the history of the nickel. The story of America’s five-cent coin is, strangely enough, a war story. And 150 years since it was first minted in 1866, the modest nickel serves as a window into the symbolic and practical importance of coinage itself.

To understand how the nickel got its name, you have to go back to an era when precious metals reigned supreme. In the 1850s, coins of any real value were made of gold and silver. In the event of a financial crisis—or worse, the collapse of a government—precious metal coins could always be melted down. They had intrinsic value.

But in the spring of 1861, southern states began to secede, and Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President. Soon shells were falling on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. America was in crisis, and so was its currency. “The outcome of the Civil War was uncertain,” says Bowers, an author of several books on coin history. Widespread anxiety led to an important side-effect of war. “People started hoarding hard money, especially silver and gold.”

Coins seemed to vanish overnight, and the U.S. Mint couldn’t keep up with demand. “The United States literally did not have the resources in gold and silver to produce enough money to meet the needs of the country,” says Douglas Mudd, the director of the American Numismatic Association. “Even the cent was disappearing.”

For the rest of this article: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/brief-history-nickel-180958941/