The Buffalo Nickel was created in 1913 by a student of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, James Earle Fraser. Fraser grew up on the prairie and wanted to design a coin that celebrated the American West. For the front, Fraser sculpted the head of a Native American, which he said was a composite based on models that included Chief Iron Tail of the Lakota Sioux and Chief Two Moons of the Cheyenne. On the back was a mighty bison. The famed Buffalo Nickel was born. Ironically, although Fraser grew up where the buffalo roamed, the model for the great beast of the West was reportedly a bison named Black Diamond,” who lived in captivity and grazed in more urban surroundings at New York’s Central Park Zoo.
The Buffalo Nickel was officially introduced into circulation on March 4, 1913, and within a week Chief Engraver Charles Barber was expressing concern about how quickly the dies were wearing out during production. According to his estimates, Buffalo Nickel dies were wearing out and breaking more than three times faster than the Liberty Head Nickel dies. Barber and others at the Mint also believed the Buffalo Nickel would not hold up very well to ordinary wear and tear, (Type 1). To correct these problems, Barber prepared several revisions to the design (Type 2), Fraser approved them, and this slightly revised Buffalo Nickel went into production right away. Oddly, the dies wore out even faster after Barber’s revisions, and the changes didn’t help with the wear problem, either.
In 1937 a worker at the Denver Mint polished a Buffalo Nickel die to remove clash marks, (the marks and scratches that occur when dies are stored in direct contact with each other). Unfortunately, this worker did his job too well and not only removed all the clash marks, but one of the buffalo’s legs as well. Amazingly, this mistake was not caught until after thousands of these three-legged nickels had been minted and put into circulation. A popular version of the Buffalo Nickel collected today is the Three-Legged Nickel as designated on the holder. At LCR Coin we usually have one or more available for your collection. Shop now and take a look, CLICK HERE.
All of this was part of President Theodore Roosevelt's decision that U.S. coins needed an artistic upgrade and asked the Mint to hire Augustus Saint Gaudens, the famous sculptor, to redesign as many coins as was legally possible. (Federal law required most coin designs to continue in circulation for at least twenty-five years before being redesigned.) Saint Gaudens created two new coin designs, the eagle (a ten-dollar gold piece) and the double eagle (a twenty-dollar gold piece). After Saint Gaudens’ death in 1909, other sculptors continued on with new, more artistic designs for the cent, the quarter eagle (a gold piece worth $2.50), and the half eagle (a five-dollar gold piece). This period of time that started in 1904 when Roosevelt initiated this plan and lasted until 1916 when the Mercury Dime, Standing Liberty Quarter, Walking Liberty Half Dollar along with the Lincoln Cent and the redesigned gold coins was when some of our finest coins were designed. This all was just a little over 100 years ago.