Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States. He drafted the declaration of independence. Among other things Jefferson was instrumental in the creation of a national monetary system. His arguments for use of the decimal system led to the adoption of the dollar rather than the pound.
Felix Schlag designed the Jefferson Nickel in 1937. He entered his design in a competition and won. Here is an image of the reverse he submitted. As you can see the Mint changed his design to the more familiar view we have today. His obverse design was adopted with little change.
Proof coins are specially minted for collectors. Proof Jefferson nickels were minted in Philadelphia from 1938 to 1942 and from 1950 to 1964. No proof coins were minted between 1943 and 1949. Proof Jefferson nickels were minted in San Francisco every year from 1968 to now.
Most early proof Jefferson nickels are brilliant. If you search carefully you can sometimes find these coins with some frost on the devices. I like the early ones with a little cameo contrast!
There have been many tweaks to the design over the years. For example in 1938 the steps were not well defined. This is known as the wavy step design. The steps were deepened and sharply defined part way through 1939 for business strikes and in 1940 for proof coins. This is the reason it doesn’t make much sense trying to find Full Step coins from 1938.
There were a few proofs made in 1939 with the reverse of 1940. Likewise there were a few proofs made in 1940 with the reverse of 1938. These are very scarce in high grades.
The upper photo is the reverse of 1938 and the lower is the reverse of 1940. Both are very well struck and are proof coins.
From 1942 to 1945 the Mint changed the composition of the Nickel to use some silver and less nickel. Nickel is used to make stainless steel and had other important uses in the effort to fight World War II.
The “War Nickels” are easy to distinguish because the mint mark was enlarged and moved above Monticello. This is the first time the US Mint used the letter P to identify coins made at the Philadelphia mint.
From 1965 to 1967 the US Mint did not produce proof sets. They did offer “Special Mint Sets”. These mint sets were special in that they were made with higher standards than regular mint sets. However the US Mint did not prepare the dies and planchets as carefully as they do for proof coins.
The first few coins struck from new dies for these SMS sets can look very close to proof coins. For that reason I include superb, cameo SMS Jefferson nickels in my proof set.
In 1994 the U.S. Mint produced the Thomas Jefferson Coinage & Currency Set to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his birth on April 13th, 1743. These sets contain the 1993 Jefferson Commemorative silver dollar, an uncirculated 1976 Jefferson $2 note and a special 1994 matte finish Jefferson uncirculated nickel. These have a low mintage of 167,000.
In 1997 the U.S. Mint also produced a matte finish Jefferson nickel. That one came in the Botanic Gardens Coinage & Currency Set and have an even lower mintage of 25,000.
Modern proof Jefferson nickels should display deep cameo contrast. The frost on these coins should be very thick and the fields should reflect like a perfect mirror. It is not too difficult or expensive to find superb deep cameo proof Jefferson nickels from 1978 to the present time.
In the Spring of 2004 the U.S. Mint replaced the reverse with a design commemorating the Louisiana Purchase. In 1803, as president, Thomas Jefferson purchased that huge territory from Napoleon.
This new reverse shows an European American shaking hands with a Native American. Above that an axe is crossed with a peace pipe.
In the Fall of 2004 the reverse was replaced again. The Keel Boat reverse commemorates the Lewis and Clark expedition. They were authorized by Jefferson to explore the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
The Keel Boats were used to travel up the Missouri river. It was on this journey that Lewis and Clark met up with Sacagawea, another important figure for US coins.
You may find this video about Jefferson Nickel values to be interesting: