On May 11, the Mint will release the 2017-W American Buffalo gold Proof coin. James Earle Fraser’s iconic Indian Head / Buffalo design debuted on the nickel five-cent piece in 1913, and today is a beloved classic.
As with so many designs, however, Fraser’s nickel did not receive universal approval. Numismatic author Roger Burdette quotes a New York Times editorial that said, “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.” Not only was the coin criticized for its aesthetic qualities, the concept of representing Liberty as something other than the traditional goddess figure was viewed askance.
Since these criticisms will sound familiar to collectors of modern Mint coinage, particularly the concern about Miss Liberty, I thought it would be interesting to exhume a few editorials published in the Numismatist back in 1913, to see what their authors had to say on the subject. (Readers will recognize a few other types of comments, as well.) Aside from the correction of a handful of typos introduced during optical-character-recognition scanning, the articles appear exactly as they were published.
“The New Five-Cent Piece”
(by Edgar H. Adams, editor of the magazine [no byline], The Numismatist, March 1913, pp. 130–131)
Through the courtesy of the Hon. George E. Roberts, Director of the United States Mint, we are enabled to show in this number a reproduction of the new five-cent piece, which is now being coined at the mint. It was intended to issue this coin early in February, but it was not until Feb. 17 that regular coinage started, when one press produced them at the rate of 120 per minute.
The design is radically different from that of any five-cent piece that has ever been issued at the Mint, and is slightly concave on both sides, somewhat like the present ten and twenty-dollar pieces. Directly under the figure “3” of the date 1913 on the obverse is the letter “F” for the designer of the piece, James Earl Fraser of New York City. It is said that Mr. Fraser took as a model an Indian of the Cheyenne tribe who recently visited New York City. The bison was modeled after a specimen in the New York Zoological Garden.
Mr. Fraser, the designer, is reported as saying that the capital “F” below the date has met with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Mint, and also the National Art Commission.
Already, it is said, the presence of this tiny letter has aroused a certain amount of criticism, similar to that which greeted the appearance of the letters “V. D. B.” on the Lincoln cent, which resulted in their removal, doing an injustice to Mr. Brenner, its designer, and violating all precedents.
It is to be regretted that the new coin does not show much more finished die work, which could easily have been accomplished. We are inclined to think that the rough finish of the design will encourage counterfeiters, whose handicraft need not now fear comparison which it has met in the past with the ordinarily delicate and finished mint issues.
The new piece certainly has radically changed the old-time tradition that Columbia is our best representation of “liberty.” In view of the rather restricted character of both of the Indian and the buffalo to-day, it is an open question whether either is a good symbol of “liberty.” St. Gaudens, in an interview, once stated that his conception of a symbol of liberty was that of “a leaping boy.”
We still prefer Miss Columbia as the proper representation of freedom, and regret that she does not appear on the new five-cent piece. We have no doubt that the original enlarged model of this design was of a handsome character, but that it would not allow for the great reduction to the size of a five-cent piece is quite apparent. From an artistic point of view no doubt the design is all that it should be, but there is another element to be considered in the making of a coin design, and that is the one of practicability. For instance, the date and the motto are in such obscure figures and letters that the slightest wear will obliterate them beyond understanding.
Altogether the new design emphasizes the absolute necessity of the appointment of a proper committee to pass upon new coin designs. Such a committee should be composed of sculptors, numismatists, and die engravers. One of this committee should be the Chief Engraver of the Mint. It will not be until the appointment of such a committee that we may expect to see a coin that will embody all the proper requisites.
“The New Five-Cent Piece”
(By W.H. De Shon, The Numismatist, May 1913, pp. 239–240)
The new five cent nickel has reached Utica. On the obverse is a most artistically executed head of a Comanche Indian, facing to the right and covering nearly the entire surface of the coin. The head dress presents no suggestion of the war bonnet of the Sioux, which the Buffalo Bill show has led the public to believe is typical of the garb of all American Indians, nor is there any hint of the chaplet of feathers such as appeared on the alleged Indian head of the cent pieces just preceding the Lincoln cent. Instead the head is bare except for two eagle feathers thrust into the hair at the back. A thick lock of hair, bound with a thong, extends to the front of the neck. On the border of the coin opposite the forehead and nose of the Indian is the word “Liberty.” Under the back of the neck is “1913” and under the 3 of this date is a very small letter “F,” the initial of Artist Fraser who designed the coin. Being incused, this initial will remain on the coin until the surface around it is worn away—that is, it will last as long as any part of the raised surface. In some quarters objection has been made to this initial on the same ground that caused the withdrawal of the initials of Victor D. Brenner from the Lincoln cents. The “F” is likely to stay on the coin, however, as there is really no valid objection to its remaining. Many of our coins have borne the initials of their designers, notably the Indian head cent, on a neck ribbon of which was an “L,” the initial of Longacre, the designer.
While the obverse of the new nickel may look more like that of a medal than a coin, there can be no criticism of it from an artistic point of view. The reverse, however, is apparently not so satisfactory. The chief feature is a full length figure of a buffalo, facing left and covering the surface from border to border. To the naked eye the face is very much suggestive of that of a human being, no matter from what point of view it is observed. On the border above the animal is the inscription “United States of America,” and on the border below “Five Cents.” Another inscription that is crowded into the field between the buffalo and “America” is “E Pluribus Unum” in three step-down lines. So crowded are the letters in “Pluribus” and “Unum” that, even under a powerful glass, they are seen to overlap. This fault, together with the fact that the letters are very small will soon reduce the words through wear to mere ridges on the surface. The crowding in of this motto mars the artistic appearance of the reverse. There is no particularly good reason why it should not have been omitted entirely. It first appeared on our coinage when it was put on the first $2.00 gold pieces that were struck. It had previously appeared on some of the State coins, notably the cents of New Jersey. There was no suggestion as to its use, however, in the act of Congress providing for the coinage of money. It is found on one of the half cents, none of the three-cent silver pieces or nickels, and none of the cents until the coming of the Lincoln cent. Outside of the $2.00 piece it did not appear on any of the coins first struck. Later, however, it was put on the reverses of gold and silver coins where it remained for many years. Eventually it disappeared from most of these coins to be returned on those of more recent mintage.
The new nickel, like its predecessor, does not bear the motto “In God We Trust.” It and the 10-cent piece are the only coins of the United States now struck that do not have it. This motto first appeared on the two-cent pieces, coinage of which began in 1864. Subsequently it was put on most of the gold and silver coins. A notable exception was that of the St. Gaudens double eagles and eagles. Those first struck did not bear the motto. Protest having been made, President Roosevelt made answer with some good arguments for the omission, but eventually he yielded and the motto appeared on all of the current gold pieces.
The act of Congress providing for the coinage of money provided that the word “Liberty” should appear on all coins. The provision has been generally carried out. Notable exceptions are the shield nickel five-cent pieces, the three-cent pieces both silver and nickel, the two-cent pieces and the copper-nickel cents struck in 1856, 1857 and 1858.
“More about New Nickel”
(No author credited, The Numismatist, May 1913, pp. 240–241)
No five-cent pieces of the old type have been coined this year. Proofs of the new type are not yet ready to be delivered, although, as no money sent with orders for the coins has been returned, it is inferred that proofs may be issued eventually. There is a possibility, however, that, because of the widespread objection to the new coin, no proofs of it may be struck until changes are made in the design. Heretofore proof nickels have been struck by a hand press from specially prepared dies on burnished planchets. The result was that the field of the coin, which was of considerable area, was given a mirror-like surface. The cents of the Indian head type were struck in the same way. With the advent of the Lincoln cent, however, the brilliant polish of the field disappeared, with the result that, outside of perhaps a clearer impression, there was practically no difference between proofs and the regular cent just issued for circulation. The area of the field of the new nickel is very small because of the size of the Indian head on the obverse and that of the full-length buffalo on the reverse, and what there is of the field has a roughly finished surface that is suggestive of lead rather than of nickel. Moreover, there is a concave surface, the striking of which appears to have forced up the metal along the edge, thus making the coin there so much thicker than that of the old type that it cannot be used in the slot machines now so common. If the field surface of proofs of the new nickels is to be as lacking in brilliancy as is that of the ones issued for circulation, there will be little difference between the two. Possibly, as we have stated, there may be a change in the design of the new coin. There can be nothing, however, in the story going the rounds that the Government will “recall” the coins already issued. The Government cannot repudiate them, nor can it get possession of hundreds of thousands of them already in circulation to destroy them. It can only change the design and issue new coins of that design to circulate with the others, as was done in 1883, when the five-cent piece with the word “cents” was issued instead of the piece without “cents.”
Up to last year the Philadelphia mint was the only one that coined five-cent pieces. Last year coinage of them was begun at the Denver mint. This year the coins will be struck for the first time at the San Francisco mint. As these mints are the only ones now in operation, all the mints of the United States will this year coin both cent and five-cent pieces.
“The Proof Nickels”
(No author credited, The Numismatist, May 1913, p. 241)
Proofs of all denominations of metallic money issued by the United States are struck at the Philadelphia mint, the only one where they are coined. They are sold to persons remitting for them at prices enough higher than their face value to pay for the cost of getting them out. For example, proofs of the minor coins—cent and 5 cents—are sold for 15 cents. Until recently the price was only 8 cents. The coins are struck by hand on a hydraulic press. Up to recently the planchets were burnished until they had a mirror-like surface, which remained on the field of a coin after striking, giving it a brilliant and attractive appearance. When the Lincoln cent was issued, however, a somewhat roughened surface was given to the field, with the result that the former brilliancy was lost, and there was little difference between a proof coin and one just issued for circulation. Proof coins have as a rule been ready for distribution to those ordering them on January 18 of each year. This year, however, because of the change in the design of the nickel, there has been a delay of about two months in getting out the minor proofs. They are at last being received by collectors. The proof of the 5-cent piece is even more unsatisfactory than that of the Lincoln cent. While the lines of the design are finer and struck up more clearly—the wrinkles on the buffalo’s skin, and parts of the Indian’s head, for example—the appearance of the coin is practically the same as that of the one struck for circulation. The surface of the small field is as rough, and the date and letters as liable to wear. There is the same crowding of the letters in the motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” particularly in “Pluribus,” where the “I” is wedged in so tightly between the “R” and the “B” as to be difficult of detection even through a very strong magnifying glass. Although a different die is supposed to have been used in striking these proofs, there is no detectable difference in design between it and that used for the nickels distributed for circulation.
The prediction of numismatical experts that the lead-like appearance of the new nickel, because of the rough surface, would make easy the counterfeiting of it, is already being fulfilled. From Philadelphia comes the report that the slot machines in that city are being flooded with counterfeits. As the danger of getting bogus coins increases, popular objection to the new nickel will be still more pronounced, and may become so strong as to force, before the year ends, some alteration in the design that will make it to conform more satisfactorily with what is of practical necessity in the case of a piece of money of so wide a circulation as the nickel. Satisfactory changes in the design might be as follows: Retain the head of the Cheyenne Indian, which is really an artistic creation, but reduce the size so as to give more field surface to the obverse. Above the head place the word “Liberty” and, underneath, the date in figures as large as those of the old design. If the initial of the designer’s name is retained, let it be incused in the bottom of the Indian’s neck. Eliminate the buffalo from the reverse entirely. Discard also the motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” as there seems to be no good reason why it should appear on any of our coins. Around the upper border place the legend “United States of America;” in the center the figure 5, as appeared on the old shield nickels; and, on the lower border, the word “Cents.” Give the field on both the obverse and reverse a smooth, level surface. A design of this kind would be sufficiently artistic, while there could be no objection to it from a practical point of view. ❑