No one knew while it was being conceived that the Buffalo Nickel would become an American numismatic icon.
In 1883, the Liberty Head nickel was issued, featuring designs by Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber. After the coin was released, it was modified to add the word "CENTS" to the reverse. Because of the new nickel's similarity in size with the gold half eagle, criminals gilded the new nickels and passed them off as five dollar coins. An Act of Congress, passed into law on September 26, 1890 required that coinage designs not be changed until they had been in use 25 years, unless Congress authorized the change. The act made the current five-cent piece and silver dollar exceptions to the twenty-five year rule; they were made eligible for immediate redesign. However, the Mint continued to strike the Liberty Head nickel in large numbers through the first decade of the 20th century.
President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 expressed his dissatisfaction with the artistic state of the American coinage, and hoped to hire sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign all the coins. Constrained by the 1890 act, the Mint only hired Saint-Gaudens to redesign the cent and the four gold pieces. Saint-Gaudens, before his 1907 death, designed the eagle and double eagle, which entered circulation that year; the cent, quarter eagle, and half eagle were designed by other artists and released into circulation by 1909. By that time, the Liberty Head nickel had been in circulation for more than 25 years, and was eligible for redesign regardless of the special provision. In 1909, Mint Director Frank Leach instructed Barber to make pattern coins for new nickels. Most of these coins featured the first president, George Washington. The press found out about the pieces, and speculated they would be released into circulation by the end of the year. The Mint received orders from banks in anticipation of the "Washington nickel". However, the project was discontinued when Leach left office on November 1, 1909, to be replaced by Abram Andrew.
Andrew was dissatisfied with the just-issued Lincoln cent, and considered seeking congressional authorization to replace the cent with a design by sculptor James Earle Fraser. While the change in the cent did not occur, according to numismatic historian Roger Burdette, "Fraser's enthusiasm eventually led to adoption of the Buffalo nickel in December 1912".
On May 4, 1911, Eames MacVeagh, son of Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh wrote to his father:
A little matter that seems to have been overlooked by all of you is the opportunity to beautify the design of the nickel or five cent piece during your administration, and it seems to me that it would be a permanent souvenir of a most attractive sort. As possibly you are aware, it is the only coin the design of which you can change during your administration, as I believe there is a law to the effect that the designs must not be changed oftener than every twenty-five years. I should think also it might be the coin of which the greatest numbers are in circulation.
Soon after the MacVeagh letter, Andrew announced that the Mint would be soliciting new designs for the nickel. Fraser, who had been an assistant to Saint-Gaudens, approached the Mint, and rapidly produced concepts and designs. The new Mint director, George Roberts, who had replaced Andrew, initially favored a design featuring assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, but Fraser soon developed a design featuring a Native American on one side and a bison on the other. Andrew and Roberts recommended Fraser to MacVeagh, and in July 1911, the Secretary approved hiring Fraser to design a new nickel. Official approval was slow in coming; it was not until January 1912 that MacVeagh asked Roberts to inform Fraser that he had been commissioned.
MacVeagh wrote, "Tell him that of the three sketches which he submitted we would like to use the sketch of the head of the Indian and the sketch of the buffalo." Roberts transmitted the news, then followed up with a long list of instructions to the sculptor, in which he noted, "The motto, 'In God We Trust', is not required upon this coin and I presume we are agreed that nothing should be upon it that is not required."
Fraser completed the models by June 1912, and prepared coin-size electrotypes. He brought the models and electrotypes to Washington on July 10, where they met with the enthusiastic agreement of Secretary MacVeagh.
In July 1912, word of the new design became publicly known, and coin-operated machine manufacturers sought information. Replying to the inquiries, MacVeagh wrote that there would be no change in the diameter, thickness, or weight of the nickel. This satisfied most firms. However, Clarence Hobbs of the Hobbs Manufacturing Company, of Worcester, Massachusetts requested further information.
According to Hobbs, his firm was the manufacturer of a device which would detect counterfeit nickels inserted into vending machines with complete accuracy. Discussions continued for most of the rest of 1912, with Hobbs demanding various changes to the design, to which the artist was reluctant to agree. When in December 1912, the Hobbs Company submitted a modified design for the nickel, MacVeagh strongly opposed it. On December 18, Roberts officially approved Fraser's design, and the sculptor was authorized to complete and perfect the design, after which he would be paid $2,500 ($61,300 with inflation) for his work.
On January 7, 1913, Fraser's approved design was used to strike experimental pieces; the sculptor later wrote that he remembered several of the workmen commenting that the new piece struck more easily than the old. Afterwards, Roberts asked Fraser if the Hobbs Company was content with the design. The sculptor told the Mint director that the firm wanted changes made, and Fraser agreed to meet with them further. Over the following two weeks, Fraser worked with George Reith, the Hobbs Company's mechanic who had invented the anti-slug device, in an attempt to satisfy the firm's concerns. On January 20, Fraser wired the Mint from his studio in New York, announcing that he was submitting a modified design, and explained that the delay was "caused by working with inventor until he was satisfied". The next day, Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John Landis sent Roberts a sample striking of the revised design, stating, "The only change is in the border, which has been made round and true".
Despite the apparent agreement, the Hobbs Company continued to interpose objections. Engraver Barber was asked for his view; he stated that Reith, who had attended the trial striking, had been given all the time and facilities he had asked for in testing the new pieces, and the mechanic had pronounced himself satisfied. Hobbs Company agent C. U. Carpenter suggested that Reith had been intimidated by the preparations that had already gone into the issue of the modified nickel, "And, instead of pointing out clearly just what the situation demanded, agreed to adapt our device to the coin more readily than he was warranted in doing". On February 3, Hobbs sent Roberts a lengthy list of changes that he wanted in the coin, and the sculptor was required to attend a conference with Hobbs and Reith. On the fifth, following the conference, which ended with no agreement, Fraser sent MacVeagh a ten-page letter, complaining that his time was being wasted by the Hobbs Company, and appealing to the Secretary to bring the situation to a close.
MacVeagh agreed to hold a meeting at his office in Washington on February 14. When the Hobbs Company requested permission to bring a lawyer, Fraser announced he would be doing the same. The Hobbs Company sought letters of support from the business community, with little success; Fraser's efforts to secure support from artists for his position were more fruitful. Barber prepared patterns showing what the nickel would look like if the changes demanded by Hobbs were made. MacVeagh conducted the meeting much like a legal hearing, and issued a letter the following day.
The Secretary noted that no other firm had complained, that the Hobbs mechanism had not been widely sold, and that the changes demanded—a clear space around the rim and the flattening of the Indian's cheekbone—would affect the artistic merit of the piece.
It is of course true that only the most serious business considerations should stand in the way of the improvement of the coinage, and this particular coin has great claims of its own, because of its special quality. If we should stop new coinage—which is always allowed every twenty-five years—for any commercial obstacles less than imperative, we should have to abandon a worthy coinage altogether. This would be a most serious handicap to the art of the Nation, for scarcely any form of art is more influential than an artistic coin, where the coin is widely circulated.
You will please, therefore, proceed with the coinage of the new nickel.
After he issued his decision, MacVeagh learned that the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, which Hobbs claimed had enthusiastically received his device, was actually removing it from service as unsatisfactory. The Secretary's decision did not end the Hobbs Company efforts, as the firm appealed to President Taft. With only two weeks remaining in his term, the President was not minded to stop the new nickel (production of which had started on February 18) and MacVeagh wrote to Taft's secretary, Charles D. Hilles, "Certainly Hobbs got all the time and attention out of this administration that any administration could afford to give to one manufacturing corporation." Numismatic historian and coin dealer Q. David Bowers describes the Hobbs matter as, "Much ado about nothing from a company whose devices did not work well even with the Liberty Head nickels".
Photos courtesy of Coin HELP!
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