Whether you’re a numismatist or a coin collector, then you probably know how rewarding of a journey it is to collect the coinage, especially when you’re trying so hard to complete a series or an entire collection.

If you’re in The USA-based coinage, then you probably know that the designs, materials, and even people changed on different coins in The United States. However, some coins didn’t change or, at least not too much. If we don’t consider some of the changes, the nickel didn’t change much, as it presented only one person – The United States President Thomas Jefferson.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer to your question: The current design of the US nickel features a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the front (obverse) and a depiction of Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation home, on the back (reverse).

Jefferson has been featured on the nickel since 1938. Prior to that, the nickel depicted a Native American head on one side and a bison on the other from 1913-1938 (Buffalo Nickel). Before 1913, the nickel featured a depiction of Liberty wearing a coronet on one side and the Roman numeral V for the coin’s value on the other.

Some key facts about Jefferson on the nickel:

  • Jefferson’s portrait on the nickel was designed by artist Felix Schlag and was based on a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Jefferson from 1805.
  • The Monticello image on the reverse was designed by Schlag and is based on a building rendering done by Thomas Sully in 1825.
  • Having Jefferson replace the previous Native American design on the nickel was controversial at the time due to Jefferson’s slaveholding history and policies toward Native Americans as president.
  • No major changes have been made to the nickel’s design since 1938, making it one of the most stable US coin designs. Periodic adjustments have been made to sharpen and update Jefferson’s portrait over the years.

So in summary, the US nickel has depicted Thomas Jefferson on its obverse continuously since 1938, with Monticello on the reverse. Jefferson replaced the previous Native American design during the 1938 redesign.

Continue reading this article to learn more. Perhaps, this explanation of Jefferson’s nickel may help you complete your collection or see which versions are missing.

The History of Nickel

Who is on the Nickel - The History of Nickel

Although it’s popularly called the nickel by Americans, the five-cent coin hasn’t always been known by that name. It was the actual people using nickel in circulation that named it that way. The initial design of the nickel wasn’t even made from nickel.

The US Mint facility announced that all coins except the cent and half-cent will be made from precious metals such as silver and gold in 1792. Some coins have also been minted from pure copper. The five-cent coin was not excepted from that rule, so the first nickel has been minted from silver.

The other name for the five-cent coin back then has also been known as half-dime and sometimes even half-dime. When the five-cent started circulating in 1794, it was significantly smaller than other coins and compared to today’s nickel.

However, in 1866, the five-cent’s composition changed. It was no longer made from silver but replaced with a copper-nickel construction which is why people started calling it nickel. Still, the silver half-dime continued being made until 1873 which means that both options were in circulation for seven years.

When the nickel was altered in 1866, a lot of things changed such as shape and size, which made handling much easier to handle, and nickel started getting the shape it has today.

The first symbol that appeared on the nickel was a woman that symbolizes liberty. She appeared in 1794 and was featured on the obverse of the coin. On the reverse side of the coin, the famous Eagle was featured.

The mint altered her design a few times, altering the poses until 1913. The liberty lady was replaced by the American Bison featuring the reverse of the coin in 1913.

That coin was known as the “Buffalo” nickel with design keeping its shape until 1938. What collectors find interesting about this version of the nickel is that this is the second time an animal has appeared on a circulating coin, with the first animal being the eagle.

At that time, the obverse theme of the nickel featured the bust of a Native American chief. This iconic design that features the American bison was designed by James Earle Fraser. It is among the more popular variants for collectors because it features an authentic design.

The Jefferson Nickel

All these designs changed in 1938 when third American President Thomas Jefferson took the famous place at the obverse of the five-cent coin. He remains the cover face of the obverse of this coin, although his design changed.

The portrait changed in 2005 to feature the Westward Journey Nickel Series, but that’s not the only time that the portrait changed in recent history. It was changed just a year later in 2006 when the mint changed its pose so that it’d face forward which was a huge change compared to his portrait that faced towards the right.

When it comes to the reverse of the nickel, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, Monticello appeared on the coin from 1938 to 2003. The reverse was changed in 2004 and 2005 because of the Westward Journey Nickel Series which introduced 4 reverse designs including Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Expedition which were important events from the time Jefferson was president.

In 2006, the reverse of the Jefferson nickel switched back to the Monticello design. The initial Monticello design was made by Felix Schlag.

The Westward Journey Nickel Series

Who is on the Nickel? - The Westward Journey Nickel Series

As mentioned above, the Westward Journey Nickel series was introduced in 2004 and 2005 to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition. We listed the nickel designs that were used during this time.

Louisiana Purchase (Peace Model)

The bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase as well as the Lewis and Clark expedition inspired the mint to release a design that would honor it. The obverse of the coin featured a typical Jefferson portrait while the obverse changed.

The reverse design which was designed by John Reich in 1801 shows the original Jefferson Peace Medal. The medal shows a handshake which is the ultimate symbol of friendship and achieved peace. This design is important because it shows that one hand shows the uniform cuff which was characteristic of the American government.

The other hand shows the American eagle symbol and represents the Native American community. Ultimately, this handshake shows the achieved friendship between the American government and the Native American community.

The Keelboat

While the obverse of this design is the same as that of previous Jefferson nickels, the reverse design is also changed. It shows a keelboat that is sailing to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The design also shows captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who are wearing the full uniform for the expedition.

American Bison

This is another commemoration design that pays tribute to the Native American culture and community. The reverse of the coin shows American bison. As mentioned before, the bison has already made its appearance on the coin before Thomas Jefferson, but this time it appeared again to commemorate the Native American people.

This design is important because Jefferson had a great role in achieving peace during the Louisiana Purchase. It is also important for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The coin also shows a new design by Jean-Antoine Houdon and the “Liberty” engraving which was inspired by Jefferson’s handwriting.

Ocean in View

The last in the Westward Journey Nickel series shows the ocean in view, particularly the Pacific Ocean. The design complements the reverse of the coin and was modeled after Andrew E. Cier’s photograph of the western coastline. It commemorates the expedition or particularly its end.

The coin has an inscription that reads “Ocean in view! O! The Joy!” which represents the excitement when the expedition crew finally reached the land after a life-threatening journey.

The Current Nickel Design

Even though the coin’s design has changed several times throughout history, the American Mint remains placing Thomas Jefferson to be the face of the Nickel coin. His portrait still complements the obverse of the coin, although the design has been altered a bit, as mentioned earlier in the article.

Jefferson is not the only president that appears on the coins. After all, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president takes place on the one-cent denomination, also known as penny. The first president of The United States, George Washington appears on a quarter.

That said, anyone who collects coins can enjoy the addition of the earliest American presidents on the obverse of the coins since they make an important part of American history.

The Obverse of the Coin

Who is on the Nickel? - The Obverse of the Coin

The Jefferson nickel has seen the last change in 2006 when the obverse of the coin changed the portrait of Jefferson to the one completed by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. It is one of the most loyal representations of Thomas Jefferson and also served as an inspiration for all other portraits.

The obverse of the coin features an inscription that says “IN GOD WE TRUST, LIBERTY” and the year of minting. What makes this design different is that Jefferson’s profile is no longer engraved. Instead, he’s facing on the front.

The Reverse of the Coin

Who is on the Nickel? - The Reverse of the Coin

Currently, the reverse of the coin shows his Monticello home in Virginia, the same design made by Felix Schlag in 1938. However, the new version that is present since 2006 shows more intricate details compared to the old coin such as more detailed doors, balconies, and windows, which makes the design more detailed with added depth. The new inscription reads “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, E PLURIBUS UNUM, FIVE CENTS, MONTICELLO.”

Editor’s notes: The Denver and Philadelphia mints currently mint the Jefferson Nickel, while the San Francisco keeps the proof coins.

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