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NNP Blog

Jun 03 2021

Defective Nickels Threaten Small Change

Even though we’re moving towards a cashless society, there are times when we need to grab a few coins to complete a transaction.  However, this task was not always straightforward during the late 1800s.  According to correspondence from the National Archives, recently transcribed by the Newman Portal, brittle five-cent nickels (commonly referred to today as Liberty Head Nickels) were returned to the Mint from banks in various states, including Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, Texas, New Jersey and Massachusetts.  Their composition was 25% nickel and 75% copper and the main complaint was that these coins were chipping and breaking, even when very little pressure was applied, and could not be used in commerce.

The institutions that returned these flawed five-cent nickels to the Mint were quite candid with their assessment of the coins in their correspondence.  For example, the Assistant Cashier of The Citizens Bank of Mount Ayr, Iowa told the Mint that he “would have considered them counterfeit if we had not gotten them directly from you.” Another recipient of the compromised nickels bluntly stated, “tis very evident that if the Nickel will not stand transportation from the Mint to this city [Jacksonville, FL], it will certainly not be equal to the rough usage it will receive from the general public.”  
 
According to this contemporary correspondence, the issue was reported at various times from late 1887 until early 1896. A Mint investigation determined that they were not at fault for the brittle five-cent nickels, but rather that their suppliers provided them with blanks that had not been properly annealed. Even though they were not responsible for the subpar condition of these coins, the Mint promptly sent replacement pieces to those who returned them. 

Link to Mount Ayr, IA return letter: https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/597553

Link to Jacksonville, FL return letter: https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/595763

Link to correspondence regarding brittle five-cent Nickels: https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22U.S.%20Mint%22%20brittle
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