Shield Nickel With Rays, 1866-1867
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Introduced following the end of the Civil War, the eponymously named Shield “nickel” was the nation’s first five cent piece with nickel metal content. The coin was proposed at least partly in response to the public?s (and Mint Director James Pollock’s) growing dislike of fractional currency. Even though there were already more than a half-dozen small denomination coins in circulation, most were actually not circulating due to coin hoarding that continued to occur after war’s end. Director Pollock had previously been opposed to nickel-content coinage because the hard metal was hard on dies and mint machinery. But, his thought was that a new five cent coin could be a temporary measure to replace the disliked fractional notes, perhaps marking time until the silver half-dime again returned to general circulation.
Politics were in play, however, with the owner of America’s largest nickel mine a frequent and persuasive lobbyist for the increased use of nickel in circulating coinage. Other non-technical issues also influenced the design of the coin, including a little-promoted specification that the coin’s weight be in metric rather than English units. In addition, several patterns were made with profiles of Washington and Lincoln, but unresolved concerns over using portraits on coins led Longacre to instead use a modified version of a design he had used on the two cent piece. The design was initially criticized both for its design and because some thought the reverse reminiscent of the Confederate “stars and bars” motif.
The Shield nickel has dentils along the rim of both sides, and all were struck at Philadelphia so none display a mintmark. The obverse has the motto “In God We Trust” along the top periphery of the field, with the date centered at the bottom. In the center is an ornamented shield, topped with a symbolic cross (often described as the cross of the Order of Calatrava, an old military/religious order in Spain, though this attribution is subject to debate), flanked on both sides by laurel leaves, and lying above and in front of two crossed arrows at the bottom.
The reverse has the words “United States of America” around little more than the top half of the periphery, with the word “Cents” at the bottom edge. Two dots, one on each side, are equally spaced between the two text legends. A large numeral 5 is in the center, from which thirteen six-point stars alternate with thirteen rays (originally called bars), radiating outward from the 5 to form an encircling wreath between the 5 and the text along the rim. Proof 1866 coins have a center dot that is visible on both sides.
Business strike shield nickels with rays are generally affordable up through lower mint state grades, but prices spike at gem level. Because design details are often weak due to striking difficulty, sharply struck coins can be a challenge to find. Coins showing die cracks, caused by the resistance of the hard blanks against the dies, are interesting and not uncommon but generally do not result in either higher or lower prices compared to regular coins. Though minted in substantially fewer numbers, 1867 coins have only a modest premium over those from 1866, until the higher mint states. A repunched 1866 date commands a significantly higher premium and is represented by far fewer examples in population/census reports. Proofs include both cameo and deep cameo (1866 only) grades, with deep cameo at higher grades being more expensive. While 1866 proofs are not plentiful at a total of about 500 coins, 1867 proofs are considered rare at only 25 to 75 coins (estimates vary), are a key coin of the series and as such are more than ten times as expensive as the 1866 proofs.
Designer: James Barton Longacre
Circulation Mintage: high 14,742,500 (1866), low 2,019,000 (1867)
Proof Mintage: high 500 (1866, estimated), low 75 (1867, estimated)
Denomintion: Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: ±20.5 mm, plain edge
Metal content: 75% silver, 25% copper
Weight: 5.0 grams
Varieties: Extensively studied, with variations that include repunched dates and doubling on the obverse (shield) side.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, Q. David Bowers, Whitman Publishing
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.
Last Updated : 05/22/2008
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About the Author
Tim Shuck is a life-long Midwestern resident, and started collecting coins after finding an Indian Head cent on the ground at his childhood farm home. Additional encouragement came from looking through a collection of well-worn late 19th and early 20th century coins kept by his grandfather in an old leather coin purse. Current collecting interests include U.S. types from the Civil War era through the early 1930's, and Colonial and Early American coins.