American coinage hadn’t changed in decades, and President Roosevelt wasn’t happy about it. He found the designs tired, and he envisioned an American coinage inspired by the artistic qualities of ancient Greek coinage.
This resulted in 1907 in the minting of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, now thought by many to be the most beautiful coin in the world. Roosevelt himself said that, “It is the best coin that has been struck for two thousand years.” The design is a perfect balance of vitality, motion, and grandeur—a bold contrast to the Liberty Head double eagle it replaced.
Less known but no less exciting is the Buffalo Nickel. The coin was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser, whose work you can see throughout Washington, D.C., including at Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Treasury building, and the U.S. Supreme Court building.
Fraser was born in Minnesota and as a child witnessed the ever-increasing push of Native Americans onto reservations by the federal government. His father, in fact, was a railroad engineer who was sent with a group to recover the remains of federal troops from the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Fraser represented Native Americans in many of his works.
In 1911, the Taft administration commissioned Fraser to produce designs to replace the Liberty Head nickel, which had been struck 1883–1912. The Mint Director at first wanted a design featuring Lincoln, but when Fraser developed a design showing a Native American on one side and a bison on the other, it quickly gained support within the Mint.
Then, however, a bizarre external dispute arose, lasting for six months. When news of the design became public, manufacturers of coin-operated machines requested further information. The answers they received satisfied them, as the new nickel was no different in weight, thickness, or diameter from the Liberty Head Nickel.
One company, however, was not satisfied. Hobbs Manufacturing Company produced a machine that it claimed would detect counterfeit nickels inserted into vending machines. The company demanded changes to the coin’s design, at one point even submitting their own design. Even after the Mint Director approved Fraser’s design, Hobbs continued lodging objections, until a meeting with lawyers ended the dispute. Perhaps most bizarre of all: the Hobbs anti-counterfeit device wasn’t widely sold anywhere, and one company that did use it was dissatisfied and discontinued its use.
In February 1913, minting of the Buffalo Nickel started. The first coins were given out while President Taft presided over the groundbreaking of the National American Indian Memorial in New York. The Buffalo Nickel was officially released in March of that year. Tens of millions were struck, and acclaim was widespread. The coin depicted American scenes, and it was a bold departure from earlier American coinage, which was more heavily influenced by British and European numismatic traditions.
The obverse features the profile of a Native American in impressive detail, including the feathers he wears and individual strands of hair. The profile is a composite of several Native American chiefs from different tribes. The reverse shows a buffalo standing atop a mound of dirt. Fraser’s design has proven enduring popular, and it has been used on commemorative coins and on the 24-karat gold buffalo series released in 2006.
At the Denver Mint, a worker accidentally created a new variety of the coin. While attempting to remove marks from a reverse die, he removed one of the buffalo’s legs. Thousands of these pieces were struck before the error was discovered, creating the highly sought-after three-legged variety of the Buffalo Nickel.
The Buffalo Nickel is an essential part of a U.S. coin collection, and few coins are more popular with American coin collectors.