What does a nickel look like? If you’ve ever fished around in your pocket or purse for loose change, you’ve probably come across a nickel coin. The copper-nickel five-cent piece is one of the most frequently used coins in the United States monetary system.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The current nickel coin is made of 75% copper and 25% nickel alloy. It has a distinct appearance with Thomas Jefferson’s profile facing left on the obverse side surrounded by the words ‘In God We Trust’, ‘Liberty’, and the date.
The reverse side depicts Monticello, Jefferson’s estate in Virginia, surrounded by the words ‘United States of America’ and the denomination.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore everything you need to know about what a nickel looks like including its size, weight, metal composition, imagery, edge lettering, and more. You’ll learn about the origins of the coin design over 200 years ago and how it has evolved through history into the modern nickel used today.
Nickel Coin Measurements
Diameter and Thickness
The diameter of a nickel coin in the United States is 21.21 mm. This size has remained consistent since the Shield nickel was first introduced in 1866. The thickness of a nickel is 1.95 mm, which also has not changed over the years.
To give some perspective on size, nickel is very similar in diameter to a European 1 euro coin (23.25 mm) but is thicker, making its overall size larger.
The specific diameter and thickness specifications allow the nickel to work properly in vending machines, toll booths, transit systems, and other automated processes requiring coins. If the size changed significantly, adjustments would need to be made industry-wide to accept the updated nickel coins.
The unchanging diameter also allows easy visual identification of nickels among other coins. A quarter is 24.26 mm for comparison, while a penny is only 19.05 mm. The distinctive size contributes to the nickels’ unique appearance and feel.
The weight of a standard nickel coin is exactly 5.00 grams. This uniform weight has been maintained since 1866 as well. For reference, this means a nickel weighs nearly as much as five American pennies put together.
Having an established, unfluctuating weight allows vending machines and other automated systems to authenticate nickels by mass. Unexpected weight variations could disrupt the sensitive weighing mechanisms in these technologies if not accounted for.
Additionally, a fixed weight enables easy calculations and conversions for accounting, rolling, and storage purposes across nickels in aggregate. Large volumes of nickels can be quickly tabulated knowing with certainty the uniform weight per unit.
The controlled specifications for diameter, thickness, and weight demonstrate the intricate engineering behind United States coinage. Far from random values, these metrics are thoughtfully set and governed to facilitate identification, utility, and efficiency from single coins to entire nationwide circulation.
Nickel Composition and Materials
The current nickel coin is composed of a copper-nickel alloy that is 75% copper and 25% nickel. This alloy combination was first introduced in 1866 and has been used for nickels since then, except for a period during World War II (more details below).
The reason nickel is blended with copper is to harden the coin and provide durability. Using a nickel and copper alloy means the coins are more resistant to damage and wear. The current nickel coins can remain in circulation for about 30 years on average before they need to be replaced.
This copper and nickel mix also gives the nickel coin its distinctive silvery appearance that people instantly recognize. The alloy is silver-colored initially but tends to fade to more of a gray tone over years of circulation as the surface reacts with oxygen.
An interesting exception in the nickel’s alloy history came during World War II between 1942 and 1945. With nickel considered a critical war material during WWII, the then-Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. sought Congressional approval to change the nickel’s composition temporarily to conserve nickel.
Congress authorized a wartime nickel alloy of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. These silver-containing nickels are commonly known today as “war nickels.” An easy way to identify war nickels is by a mint mark appearing above the dome of Monticello on the reverse of the coin.
After the war, the U.S. Mint returned to the copper-nickel alloy in 1946. Since then, the nickel has maintained the same 75% copper and 25% nickel composition.
Obverse (Heads) Design
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
The obverse side of the United States five-cent coin, known as the “nickel”, features a right-facing portrait of Founding Father and third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. This iconic depiction shows Jefferson with a strong and determined expression, wearing a colonial coat and a wig of the style fashionable in the late 18th century.
The original portrait of Jefferson was designed by Felix Schlag, the winner of a design competition for the new nickel first issued in 1938. Schlag chose Thomas Jefferson because he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
His striking portrait became a classic and has appeared essentially unchanged in every subsequent issue of the Nickel.
In 2004 and 2005, special designs with “Peace Medal” images honoring the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition showed more of Jefferson’s figure, but Schlag’s bold close-up portrait remained as the core obverse image.
Jefferson’s face conveys a visionary leader ready to build a new nation based on freedom and self-determination.
The inscriptions on the obverse of the nickel coin are:
- Across the top: LIBERTY
- Below on either side of Jefferson’s portrait: IN GOD WE TRUST
- Along the bottom edge: The date of minting, for example, 2020
“LIBERTY” refers to the freedoms upon which America was founded, echoing Jefferson’s immortal words that “all men are created equal” with rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” first appeared on U.S. coins during the Civil War. It reflects a belief in a higher authority fundamental to the moral principles in America’s Declaration of Independence authored by Jefferson.
The changing date markers range from the nickel’s original introduction in 1866 up through the current year’s mintage.
Reverse (Tails) Design
Monticello Estate Depiction
The reverse side of the nickel features an engraving of the west front of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate near Charlottesville, Virginia. Monticello was Jefferson’s primary plantation and he designed the neoclassical Virginia estate himself, being greatly inspired by the principles of Palladian architecture.
The engraving on the nickel depicts the west front entrance of Monticello, with the lawn terrace walls and rows of trees visible. Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, so Monticello stands as an iconic representation of American democracy and liberty.
The Monticello engraving has appeared on the reverse of the nickel since 1938. According to the United States Mint, over 1.2 billion nickels displaying Monticello were produced in 2022 alone. This makes it one of the most widely distributed architectural depictions in America.
The engraving brings greater public awareness to Jefferson’s iconic estate and recognizes its importance in American history. Tourist visits to Monticello now exceed half a million people per year, confirming the strong public interest generated by its appearance on the nickel.
Surrounding the central Monticello engraving on the reverse face of the nickel are the inscriptions “United States of America,” stating the country’s full name, and “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of Many, One” in Latin.
This latter motto refers to the formation of one unified nation from the original thirteen colonies. Both inscriptions reinforce the concepts of unity and federation that are represented by Monticello’s presence on the coin.
Underneath the Monticello depiction is the coin’s legal value and denomination, “Five Cents,” which confirms its worth as currency. The “P” mint mark of the Philadelphia mint is also shown on this side when applicable.
Finally, in tiny print along the bottom rim of the coin is the name of its designer “Fraser,” referring to sculptor James Earle Fraser who created the original plaster models for the new nickel design introduced in 1913 and still used today’s coins over a century later.
The edge of the nickel coin contains the words “FIVE CENTS” and either “E PLURIBUS UNUM” or “IN GOD WE TRUST”, depending on when the coin was minted. From 1938 to 2003, all nickels featured “E PLURIBUS UNUM” on the lower edge.
In 2004, the U.S. Congress passed the American 5-Cent Coin Design Continuity Act, which ordered a gradual conversion of nickels featuring Jefferson’s profile to display “IN GOD WE TRUST” instead.
Since 2006, all nickels produced have shown “IN GOD WE TRUST” along the upper edge on the obverse side. At the same time, the reverse side features “E PLURIBUS UNUM” on the upper edge.
The lettering along the edge of the nickel is raised rather than engraved. This creates a “reeded edge” effect. The number of reeds or ridges varies by year and mint. Early nickels, such as the 1913 Liberty Head nickels, had no reeding along the rim.
Over time, more reeds were added to make coin clipping and counterfeiting more difficult. Today, nickels have an average of 118-120 reeds around the diameter.
The letters on the edge can wear down significantly with heavy circulation. On very worn nickels, the word s may appear smoothed or partially erased. The U.S. Mint standards state that a nickel is “unfit for circulation” if the edge lettering shows excessive wear.
These quality guidelines help control the nickels in active use.
An easy way for collectors and enthusiasts to read the edge lettering is by tilting the coin at an angle under good lighting. A magnifying glass may be required to easily distinguish the words on well-worn specimens.
When identifying the mint location and date, the edge lettering can provide another useful clue alongside the main design elements. The various edge styles also make each variety more interesting to examine up close!
What Does A Nickel Look Like – Conclusion
As you can see, the seemingly simple nickel coin has an intricate history and design. Over 200 years, its size, composition, imagery, and edge lettering have gone through transformations–all while keeping to the traditional obverse portrait of Thomas Jefferson and the reverse view of his Monticello estate.
So next time you have a nickel in hand, take a closer look and appreciate the nuances that have created the definitive look of America’s 5-cent piece.