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Would you believe that there were vending machines back in 1912?

Well, there were, and the Hobbs Company, manufacturers of these machines, did their best to delay the introduction of the Buffalo Nickel into circulation. They were convinced that the nickel would not work in their machines and forced numerous delays to the initial production. Eventually, however, their concerns were overruled and James Earle Fraser's design went into production in 1913.

Fraser faced some other obstacles as well, not the least of which was that his nickel was replacing the Liberty or "V" nickel which had been designed by Charles E. Barber, who was the Chief Engraver of The United States Mint at the time when Fraser was trying to get his new nickel into production. Fraser probably never said, "Hey boss! Your design stinks! Let's dump it and try mine out for 25 years or so," but there were probably some misgivings between the two men. After all, Barber's nickel had been around since 1883 and his handiwork also graced both sides of the Half Dollars, Quarters and Dimes of the time, all three being issued from 1892 through 1916. He may not have had a monopoly, but there was a long period of time (1892 - 1912) when the Penny and the Silver Dollar were the only coins in circulation that were not the product of his hands.

Part of the reason that Fraser even started to work on his design was because President Teddy Roosevelt was actively seeking more attractive coinage designs and the climate was right for a change. Roosevelt was a big fan of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' work (he designed the Gold Eagles and Double Eagles of the time) and wanted to see the standard issue non-gold coins begin to resemble Saint-Gaudens' style. Not surprisingly, Charles Barber disliked Saint-Gaudens' work and had been involved in an effort in 1906 to block the minting of Saint-Gaudens gold designs.

It was in this atmosphere and this arena that Fraser toiled with his new design. Talk about tough working conditions! Wow!

Barber may not have looked at it this way, but he got a small measure of revenge later in 1913. Fraser's initial design had the buffalo standing on a raised bluff, or mound, presumably looking out over the prairie. The words "Five Cents" appeared across this mound and very early on it became evident that the letters were wearing away. It seems that these letters were one of the highest points on the coin and therefore took the brunt of the wear as the coin slid over other coins and other surfaces.

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Unfortunately, Chief Engraver Barber decided to "fix" this problem by doing away with the mound, placing the buffalo on level (boring!!) ground and lowering the relief on "Five Cents" so that it was protected by the rim and the line that now formed the (boring!!) level ground. Thus, 1913 bore two distinct styles of the same nickel, which became known as Type 1 (Raised Ground) and Type 2 (Level (boring!!) Ground). The coins minted in 1914 and all succeeding years carried the Type 2 design.

There were a few other minor tweaks to the coin along the way, such as strengthening of the Indian’s nose and the letters in “Liberty”, but nothing as dramatic as the 1913 change to the reverse.

Production of the Buffalo Nickel ran from 1913 through 1938, when it was replaced with Jefferson Nickel. There were three years in that span, 1922, 1932 and 1933, when no nickels were minted. There were six other years, 1921, 1923, 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1938, where minting of the nickels was confined to just one or two mint locations. 1931 saw production only at the San Francisco mint. In 1921, 1923 and 1930, nickels were minted in Philadelphia and San Francisco, but not Denver. Denver was the only mint that produced the 1938 nickel. 1934 saw production at Philadelphia and Denver, but not San Francisco.

Roughly 1.2 BILLION Buffalo Nickels were struck at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints, combined, during the period 1913 through 1938. If that sounds like a lot of nickels, consider this: In 1964, the Denver mint struck nearly 1.8 billion Jefferson Nickels. Let me say that another way for emphasis: There were 600 million more Jefferson Nickels struck at ONE mint in ONE year than all the Buffalo Nickels struck at all the mints over a 25 year span!

It’s now been 70 years since the last Buffalo Nickel was struck and, not surprisingly, you almost never see one in your pocket change. It’s estimated that less than 1 in 10,000 nickels currently in circulation is a Buffalo Nickel. If you’re lucky enough to find one, chances are the date will be worn away.

At this point, I’m tempted to tell you all about how I have saved a lot of these nickels from extinction by restoring their dates and other features, but that would sort of be like portraying myself as a part of Buffalo Nickel history and I guess that in the grand scheme of things I’m really not that important! Just the same, James Earle Fraser would probably rest a little easier knowing that, in my own way, I’m extending the life and the appeal of his design.

If you’re really interested in knowing what I do with the nickels and how I do it, take a look at my restoration process.