BY JOSHUA MCMORROW-HERNANDEZ

World War II-era Jefferson silver five-cent coins, widely known as war nickels, are marking an important milestone in October 2017. The first of these historic coins, spawned from patriotic rations to help save essential commodities for the troops fighting overseas, are turning 75 years old this year.

Americans living during the time of the Second World War had mostly grown accustomed to conserving resources. When the United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on American military fleets in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the nation was emerging from the Great Depression, an extended period of a deep, widely devastating economic recession that began in 1929.

WWII RATIONS EFFECT UNITED STATES COINS

United States involvement in World War II reinvigorated many economic sectors, including manufacturing. Millions of Americans, many jobless for years due to the detrimental effects of the Great Depression, were employed in factories to help produce military ships, tanks, and guns. However, virtually unprecedented manufacturing of military goods strained natural resources, among these various forms of metal.

Nickel was essential for making artillery shells and armor plating, and United States Mint officials wanted to reduce use of this critical material to help with the war effort. In March 1942, Congress authorized production of five-cent coins made from a composition of 50 percent copper and 50 percent silver. However, Mint officials were also granted the right to adjust those proportions or to add other metals as necessary in the public interest.

This would not necessarily be a simple task, as finding a suitable alloy that still works in existing vending machines and passes through counterfeit detectors yet contains no nickel would require some degree of experimentation. Officials eventually determined the best solution was to strike five-cent coins with an alloy of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver, and nine percent manganese.

The five-cent piece wouldn’t be the only United States denomination affected by World War II metal rations. Copper, a material necessary for the production of ammunition, was eliminated from the one-cent coin. In 1943, the United States Mint struck Lincoln cents from a composition of steel coated with zinc. However, the coins proved highly susceptible to corrosion, were often confused with dimes, and were not consistently accepted in vending machines, leading officials to scrap the steel cent, the only regular-issue United States coin attracted to magnets, after just one year.

Conversely, Jefferson five-cent coins made from the 35 percent silver wartime composition were far more successful and widely well received than their steel cent counterparts. Jefferson war nickels were first struck on October 8, 1942 and remained in production through 1945, the year World War II ended.

WARTIMEFIVE-CENTCOINSINTRODUCEHISTORICFIRSTS

When the first silver five-cent coins rolled off the presses in late 1942, they represented an important first for United States coins: they marked the first appearance of the P mintmark indicating the Philadelphia Mint. Incidentally, this historic footnote has great significance in 2017, which marks not only the 75th anniversary of the first P mintmark on U.S. coins, but also this is the 225th anniversary of the founding of the United States Mint in 1792.

In addition to the appearance of the first-ever P mintmark, Jefferson silver five-cent coins carry some of the largest mintmarks ever to appear on United States coins. War nickels can be readily distinguished from regular nickels with the appearance of the large P, D (Denver), and S (San Francisco) mintmarks on the reverse over the dome of Monticello. While the large mintmarks were designed to aid in potentially removing the emergency silver five-cent coins from circulation following the war, that never happened. In fact, war nickels still appear in circulation from time to time.

The 35 percent silver war five-cent coins also represent another important milestone for United States coinage. They became the first regular-issue U.S. coins of the five-cent denomination to contain silver since 1873 when the last half dimes, which also carry a face value of five cents, were struck.

COLLECTING STRATEGIES FOR SILVER JEFFERSON FIVE-CENT COINS

The most conventional way to collect the war-era Jeffs is as either as part of a larger Jefferson nickel collection spanning from 1938 to the current date or as a separate subtype set. Many coin dealers sell 11-coin war nickel sets, and these short sets have been very popular

among coin collectors for generations. An 11-piece circulated set commonly retails for less than $20 to $25, while uncirculated sets with specimens ranging from MS-63 to MS-65 may fetch closer to $150 to $200.

In addition to traditional date-and-mintmark collecting, many hobbyists seek to add die varieties to their Jefferson nickel sets. In their book Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins (Whitman Publishing), authors Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton identify several varieties among the wartime five-cent coins.

Perhaps the most notable-and certainly most valuable-among these is the 1943-P 3/2 overdate, which in a grade of Mint State-63 lists for $325 in the CDN CPG. Another challenging variety is the 1943-P doubled die obverse, which exhibits prominent doubling in Jefferson’s eye and in areas of the obverse inscriptions; it lists for $260 in the CPG. A third die variety, the 1945-P doubled die reverse, shows significant doubling in the MONTI