Monday, March 10, 2014

Apple # 665: Nickels

I've still got my eye on Ukraine (as do many other people, I'm sure), but while that gets worked out, I noticed something the other day about nickels.  They are the only coin we call by the metal they're made of.

We don't call pennies "coppers" (not anymore, anyway), and the other coins we call according to their value.  Dimes, for example, are 1/10th of a dollar. The word "dime" comes from the Latin decimus, which means "tenth". We do say "silver dollars," but we don't call them "silvers," we call them "silver dollars." 

So, nickels are the only coin we call by their composition.  What else is there to know about nickels?

More fun than a pile of nickels?
(Photo from Truth Alliance Network)

  • Nickels originally weren't made of nickel, and they weren't called "nickels," either.
  • Back in the early days of the United States, all US coins had to be made of either gold, silver, or copper.  The five-cent coin at that time was made of silver, and it was called the "half disme" (pronounced "half dime").

The silver half-dime, this one from 1796.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • The silver half-dime was minted until 1873.  But in 1866, Congress decided to mint a new five-cent coin, this one made of the much-cheaper nickel.  
  • So for 7 years both types were in circulation, meaning you might have 2 different five-cent coins in your pocket at the same time: the silver half-dime and the nickel nickel.

The first nickel nickel, known as the Shield nickel.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • The nickel nickel was made larger than the previous silver half-dime because nickel was cheaper than silver.  The larger size made it easier to handle than its much smaller predecessor.
  • Nickels have also had many face lifts.  That is, the picture on the front & back has changed several times.
    • Liberty Head 1883-1912 (a few were also made in 1913)
    • Buffalo 1913-1938
    • Jefferson 1938-2004
    • Jefferson variations 2005, 2006-present
  • If you find a Liberty or Buffalo nickel, hang onto it.  It could be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  If it's one of those super-rare Liberty nickels from 1913, it could be worth $4.5 million.

The Liberty Head nickel from 1883.  Though it's the earliest one minted, it's not as valuable as the 1913 Liberty Head.
(Photos from Wikipedia)

The Buffalo nickel is atypically called by what's on the back (reverse) as opposed to what's on the front (obverse). The man who designed this nickel said that the Native American pictured on the front is a composite of three Native American chiefs: Chief Iron Tail, a Lakota; Chief Two Moons, a Cheyenne, and John Big Tree, a Seneca.  John Big Tree said he was the one and only model for the coin.
(Photos from Wikipedia)

The Jefferson nickel, minted from 1938-2004. This particular one happens to be from 1965.
(Photos by the Apple Lady)

The more recent version of the Jefferson nickel, first minted in 2006. This one is from 2012.  It's so shiny, I had trouble getting a good picture that didn't have a glare across it.
(Photos by the Apple Lady)

  • Today's nickel has far less nickel than it used to: only 25%.  The rest?  Copper.  Like the penny.
  • It also costs a bit more to make a nickel than it once did.  It costs about 11 cents to make one nickel.  
  • Thus the Treasury Department has recommended that we stop minting nickels (and pennies, too, which cost 2 cents each to make), and President Obama has put such a recommendation into his FY2015 budget.  Whether the Mint stops making nickels or not remains to be seen, as various business groups such as the Coin Laundry Association oppose getting rid of coins.
  • Since nickels cost more than twice their value to make them, you might say that nickels "aren't worth a plugged nickel."
  • What is a plugged nickel anyway?  Well, back in the day, wily and enterprising folks would bore out the middle of a coin and take that metal to be melted down and sold.  The hole in the coin they would fill with a cheaper metal, then pass off the coin as perfectly fine.  But really, they were creating counterfeit coins.  If you got one of those coins whose center had been swapped out for a cheaper metal, your coin wasn't worth jack.
  • The cheaper metal in the middle was the "plug," and the coin that had been so doctored was "plugged."

This is an actual plugged coin.  In this case, it's an 1804 dollar plugged with a penny.  This was done by the Gallery Mint Museum, perhaps for demonstration purposes? I suspect that a real-life plugged nickel would have been disguised somehow, maybe with some paint, to cover up the penny plug in the middle.
(Image from Gallery Mint Museum Scrapbook)
  • Any coin could get "plugged."  There were, in fact, plugged quarters and plugged dimes, and even plugged pennies (or "plugged cents").  
  • But the nickel emerged as the favorite in the phrase "not worth a plugged [coin]" to indicate total lack of value, perhaps because nickels aren't worth much to begin with.  And also, I suppose, because "plugged nickel" is full of satisfying consonants and therefore much more fun to say than "plugged penny" or "plugged cent."
  • By the way, some people think that nickels will be worth saving because their melt value will someday be greater than their face value.  That is, the nickel and copper in the coin will be worth more than 5 cents.  
  • At the moment, however, one nickel is worth only about 4 cents in melt value.  If you want to check current melt values versus face values of all sorts of circulating coins, check Coinflation.
  • And by the way, to make this plan work, you would have to find somebody who would melt down your nickels, and the amount they charged for that service could not exceed the value of the melted metal. Doesn't sound like a very sound investment to me. Har har.

1 comment:

  1. The Washington Post is thinking about this too. They should have asked you..


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