The Liberty Head Nickel, also known as the “V” Nickel, was first introduced by the United States Mint in 1883, and was struck until 1912 with the exception of 5 that were stuck in 1913. This coin type represented the second design for the newly introduced nickel denomination.
The Shield Nickel, first introduced in 1866, was the first nickel composition five-cent piece in U.S. history. Until that point, a small silver coin called the “half dime,” had served as the nation’s measure for that particular denomination. While the Shield Nickel was well-received, it proved extremely problematic to strike, and by the early 1880s the Mint was already looking to replace it. The Mint directed Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber to prepare sketches for the new design. Barber completed the models later that year, and trial strikes were made of the coin. The new five-cent piece was subsequently approved, and went into production in 1883.
The obverse design of the Liberty Head Nickel features a classic head of Lady Liberty. She is depicted wearing a coronet, with wheat and cotton woven into her hair. Thirteen stars, representing the original thirteen colonies, surround the image. The reverse design features a large Roman numeral “V” surrounded by a wreath of corn, wheat and cotton.
This design, as originally struck in 1883, carried no mention of the denomination. This oversight had profound implications, as the “V” could be interpreted as either five cents or five dollars. After all, the Liberty Nickels were nearly the same size as the Half-Eagle Dollar coins. Counterfeiters took advantage of this flaw, and began to plate the nickels with gold, passing them off as five-dollar gold pieces. Production of Liberty Head nickels came to a sudden stop while Barber quickly amended the design to include the words “CENTS” on the reverse. This design was used for the duration of the series.
Following the initial controversy, the Liberty Head Nickel settled into its role as a practical everyday coin. There were no significant changes made to its straightforward design, and for nearly thirty years there were no branch-mint issues to complicate matters. The Liberty Head Nickels were mainly produced at the Philadelphia Mint, but in 1912 production of the denomination was added at the Denver and San Francisco Mints. The last year of production, much like the first, has become a source of great intrigue. Although no 1913 Liberty Head Nickels were officially struck, five are known to exist. Numismatists have been fascinated with these coins ever since their discovery.
In 1911, the Mint began work on a new design, which would replace the Liberty Head design. This new coin type, known as the Buffalo Nickel, went into production in 1913.