By Tom LaMarre
March 28, 2011
Nickel was a hot item during World War II. When western movie star Johnny Mack Brown’s six-shooters were sent to be nickel-plated, they came back with silver instead. Pretty much the same thing happened to the Jefferson “five-cent coin,” as the government called it.
Armor plate and other military uses had top priority for nickel during the war. By September 1942, five-cent pieces were scarce because of heavy demand and a nickel shortage. As a result, the Federal Reserve temporarily suspended nickel shipments.
Recognizing the need to remove nickel from the five-cent piece, Treasury officials considered several options. One of them was for a five-cent piece composed of copper and manganese. However, the Miami News predicted “slenderized” nickels in the proposed alloy would turn yellow.
In August 1942, officials announced a plan to strike five-cent pieces in an alloy of 50 percent silver and 50 percent copper. But they soon dropped the idea because of rising silver prices and the failure of test coins to work in vending machines.
They finally decided to use an alloy of copper, silver and manganese. It may not seem practical today, but in 1942 the silver in the revised nickel was only worth one or two cents.
Denver Mint Superintendent Moses Smith announced production of nickel-less five-cent pieces would begin
Sept. 1, 1942. The Philadelphia and San Francisco mints would also strike wartime five-cent pieces.
Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau gave samples of the new coins to reporters on Oct. 8, 1942. The public had to wait until Nov. 1 for the official release.
In addition to their alloy, which darkened with age, war nickels were distinguished by a large mintmark above Monticello’s dome. For the first time, a “P” appeared for Philadelphia.
Experimental five-cent pieces with a reeded edge had been struck before oversized mintmarks were chosen as a distinguishing feature.
Nearly 900 million five-cent pieces poured from the presses from 1942-1945, pushing U.S. silver use to record levels. The five-cent pieces returned to its former alloy in 1946, but silver nickels circulated for decades.