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The Buffalo nickel or Indian Head nickel was a copper-nickel five-cent piece struck by the United States Mint from 1913 to 1938. It was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser.

As part of a drive to beautify the coinage, five denominations of US coins had received new designs between 1907 and 1909. In 1911, Taft administration officials decided to replace Charles E. Barber's Liberty Head design for the nickel, and commissioned Fraser to do the work. They were impressed by Fraser's designs showing a Native American and an American bison. The designs were approved in 1912, but were delayed several months because of objections from the Hobbs Manufacturing Company, which made mechanisms to detect slugs in nickel-operated machines. The company was not satisfied by changes made in the coin by Fraser, and in February 1913, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh decided to issue the coins despite the objections.

Despite attempts by the Mint to adjust the design, the coins proved to strike indistinctly, and to be subject to wear—the dates were easily worn away in circulation. In 1938, after the expiration of the minimum 25-year period during which the design could not be replaced without congressional authorization, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, designed by Felix Schlag. Fraser's design is admired today, and has been used on commemorative coins and gold bullion pieces.

The coins were officially released to circulation on March 4, 1913, and quickly gained positive comments as depicting truly American themes. However, The New York Times stated in an editorial that "The new 'nickel' is a striking example of what a coin intended for wide circulation should not be ...[it] is not pleasing to look at when new and shiny, and will be an abomination when old and dull." The Numismatist, in March and May 1913 editorials, gave the new coin a lukewarm review, suggesting that the Indian's head be reduced in size and the bison be eliminated from the reverse.

The piece was struck by the tens of millions, at all three mints (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco), through the remainder of the 1910s. In 1921, a recession began, and no nickels at all were struck the following year. The low mintage for the series was the 1926-S, at 970,000 — the only date-mint combination with a mintage of less than 1 million. The second lowest mintage for the series came with the 1931 nickel struck at the San Francisco Mint. The 1931-S was minted in a quantity of 194,000 early in the year. There was no need for more to be struck, but Acting Mint Director Mary Margaret O'Reilly asked the San Francisco Mint to strike more so that the pieces would not be hoarded. Using materials on hand, including the melting down of worn-out nickels, San Francisco found enough metal to strike 1,000,000 more pieces. Large quantities were saved in the hope they would become valuable, and the coin is not particularly rare today despite the low mintage.

A well-known variety in the series is the 1937–D "three-legged" nickel, on which one of the buffalo's legs is missing. Breen relates that this variety was caused by a pressman, Mr. Young, at the Denver Mint, who in seeking to remove marks from a reverse die (caused by the dies making contact with each other), accidentally removed or greatly weakened one of the animal's legs. By the time Mint inspectors discovered and condemned the die, thousands of pieces had been struck and mixed with other coins.

When the Buffalo nickel had been in circulation for the minimum 25 years, it was replaced with little discussion or protest. The problems of die life and weak striking had never been solved, and Mint officials advocated its replacement. In January 1938, the Mint announced an open competition for a new nickel design, to feature early President Thomas Jefferson on the obverse, and Jefferson's home, Monticello on the reverse. In April, Felix Schlag was announced as the winner. The last Buffalo nickels were struck in April 1938, at the Denver Mint, the only mint to strike them that year. On October 3, 1938, production of the Jefferson nickel began, and they were released into circulation on November 15.

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