by Kevin S. Baldwin
When I first moved to a small town in the midwest in the summer of 1999, I walked downtown to check out and support the local businesses. I honestly cannot remember what I bought, but I do remember that the change the cashier made for that first purchase included a very worn 1907 Liberty Head nickel. I had never seen one before! It was one of those “Twilight Zone” moments: I could almost hear the repetitive four note musical theme, and half-expected Rod Serling to step out from behind an architectural column, cigarette smoke swirling towards the ceiling, to deliver a pithy introduction: “He thought he was moving to a new place but it was really another time.”
My thoughts alternated between delight and horror. What were the odds of this coin showing up during the very first purchase in my new hometown? If rare, was this some kind of auspicious sign? If common, where had I moved to? Did women have the vote? Had news of the repeal of prohibition made it here yet? (I later found out it isn't possible to buy alcohol before 1pm on Sundays). I haven't noticed any coins of similar vintage since, so I guess maybe somebody found it in their attic and put it back into circulation. I tucked it away as a memento and forgot about it.
As it happens, I rediscovered the Liberty Head nickel this week, while rummaging through old some stuff and being that it's less than a week after the Fourth of July, I began wondering when presidents began to replace personifications of concepts on coins, and what other symbolisms they might contain. The Liberty Head nickel's predecessor, the Shield nickel, was struck from 1866 to 1883. Its shield was intended to show the strength of a unified America, (perhaps in the wake of the recently concluded Civil War?). The Liberty Head nickel was struck from 1883 to 1913. Its obverse showed a wreath of corn, cotton, and wheat surrounding a Roman numeral V, for the five cent denomination. Was this paying tribute to a diminishing agricultural sector within a suddenly burgeoning industrial economy? The Buffalo or Indian Head nickel was struck from 1913 to 1938: Recognition of a bygone frontier and way of life?
The Jefferson nickel, with Monticello on the obverse, has been in continuous production since 1938. Jefferson was of course one of the founding fathers and a champion of the yeoman farmer, and a nation of decentralized wealth and power. Today, we live in a country much more like the one Alexander Hamilton envisioned, with a centralized banking system, and concentrated wealth and power (Reece 2009). I wonder what the next incarnation of the nickel will display?
Erik Reece. 2009. An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. Riverhead Books. New York.