With the high price of silver making regular headlines these days, it can be really good news to find out that some of the small change you have in your pocket might actually be good for something other than feeding a parking meter.
Many of the coins you’ll find in circulation today have some type of silver content, and nickels, in particular, can turn out to be very valuable in certain situations.
What is a Nickel?
A "nickel" refers to a five-cent coin that gets its name from the actual metal. Nickel itself is in fact a silver-colored metal that is firm and resistant to corrosion, so it can sometimes be blended with other types of metals to create alloys, which was the way many of the first coins were made.
The actual word “nickel” is derived from the German Kupfernickel, which means “copper demon”. This is because lots of miners were tricked because they first thought the nickel was actually a piece of copper. The original US five-cent coins were made of silver, and they were actually known as “half dimes.”
During the American Civil War, people started making new coins with less expensive materials, and this is how the nickel came to be.
A Short History of Coins
For more than 2600 years, there have been societies that have used coins as currency. Although the first civilization to use coins has been widely debated by experts, it is generally agreed that the earliest coins were alloys because they formed a stronger physical piece, and they were also less likely to corrode.
Coins also represented a measurable way of defining the value of a certain asset, and because they were also fairly light and easy to transport, they eventually became the primary way of conducting business transactions. The history of coins can be traced from the ancient times of the Greeks and Romans up until the present, and it is highly correlated with economic history in general.
The study of coins is also sometimes known as the history of minting or more simply, the history of coin collecting. Ancient coins were not that different from today’s ones. Many types of coins depict profiles of royal figures or great leaders, and sometimes they include scenes displaying power in natural settings.
Even though many other esoteric monetary systems are now emerging, such as Bitcoin, the original types of metal coins are still widely used in most societies for monetary and other purposes.
Some of the Earliest Coins in the World
The great temple of Artemis in Ephesus, Turkey, offers some evidence for the earliest coins that are known to have been used in the ancient world. The first structures that can be found in the sanctuary, which are actually buried deep below the later temples, date back to the eighth century BC, which is when precious objects like coins were first used widely.
Some of the first coins were known as Lydian Lion coins. These were made out of electrum, which is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. However, these coins had variable precious metal value depending on their actual composition.
The royal lion symbol was stamped on the coin, almost like a seal, and it served as a declaration of the value of the specific coin. These Lydian Lion coins were found right before the coins of ancient Greece, which led to all forms of Western coinage, as well as all forms of Islamic coinage.
Lydian Lion coins were minted by Alyettes of Lydia, 610–560 BC. But it took quite a long time before ancient coins like these were used for trade or commerce. Even the smallest denomination electrum coins were considered too valuable to conduct small day-to-day transactions.
Indian coinage was also mostly a product of Greek, Roman, and Islamic influences. Chinese coinage, which probably developed independently, was also replaced by Western-style coins during the late nineteenth century. Other Asian and African countries generally use the Western approach to coinage too.
Later on in the history of civilization, another prominent player in the world of coins was The House of Medici. This was an Italian banking family that was a force under Cosimo de' Medici in the Republic of Florence during the 15th century.
The family prospered over time until it was finally able to start the Medici Bank. This bank was the biggest in Europe throughout the 15th century, and it was to become a major force in terms of the way coinage was developed and used throughout that era and beyond.
These days, coins can be found in a wide range of different denominations that can easily be used for all kinds of regular transactions. In fact, prices of goods have become so high these days that the one-cent coins, also known as pennies, have become almost obsolete when it comes to having any kind of purchasing power.
When the price of precious metals rises above a certain level, the value of the metal in these coins can actually exceed the face value of the coin itself.
Looking More Closely at the Nickel
For people who live in the United States of America, a “nickel” is the name of the five-cent coin that is found in circulation. In fact, these types of coins are mostly made out of copper, and only about 25% of their composition can truly be considered to be made out of nickel.
So if most nickels are composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel, what is the reason? It is generally economic. Due to the increased need for industrial metals such as nickel during World War II, the five-cent coins in circulation started to be made out of 35% pure silver for the entire duration of the war.
The rest of the coin was then made up of copper (around 56%) and another metal called manganese (around 9%). The manufacturers of these coins soon found that even when using this alloy, it was possible for vending machines and other coin-operated devices to still accept and recognize the coins as nickels, even though they were made with so much silver. This was a major advantage and a good reason to keep maintaining the mintage of these types of coins.
How to Identify Silver War Nickels
As explained above, all of the nickels minted in the United States between 1942 and 1945 were made out of 35% silver. Not surprisingly, these coins are known as silver war nickels or simply as Jefferson nickels. At first glance, they are hard to distinguish from other copper-nickel coins because they look very much like any other nickel.
They even have the same portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the coin and the color is pretty much identical. However, there are actually a few important visual differences. The easiest way that you can check for a silver war nickel is the year (or date) listed on the coin itself.
All of the nickels made between 1942 and 1945 had a 35% silver composition. On the tails side of the coin, you will find the familiar building known as Monticello, Jefferson’s famous estate, pictured there. But only silver Jefferson nickels will list the mintmark on this side of the coin.
This mintmark is a letter (D, or S, or P) that you’ll find prominently placed above the Monticello house. These large mintmarks denote the types of silver nickels that originated from the Denver, San Francisco, and Philadelphia branches of the United States Mint.
So always remember that the specific placement of the mint mark is unique to silver war nickels because this is something that makes them easy to recognize. Up until World War II, Jefferson nickels were made out of 25% nickel and 75% copper.
During the war, it was really hard to source the nickel because it was being used so much to make weapons for the war effort. As we mentioned above, from October 1942, the coins were changed to percentages of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese.
To separate these silver nickels from the earlier nickel/copper types, the mintmark was moved from the right of Monticello to above the dome of Monticello. The coins were also made quite a lot bigger during this period.
Some Other Ways to Tell If Your Coins Are Silver
Silver war nickels are certainly not the only valuable coins you might find among your spare change. There are, in fact, plenty of other valuable silver coins that are actually up to 90% pure silver. This can markedly increase the value of the coin, so it is important to know which ones might have more silver content in them.
A lot of these types of coins are going to be silver dimes, which can generally be found in one of three different varieties:
- The Barber dimes (usually dated between 1892-1916)
- The Mercury dimes (usually dated between 1916-1945)
- The Roosevelt dimes (usually dated between 1946-1964)
Mostly because all of these coins are fairly small, you will still find a lot of them in circulation. Sometimes you can also even find 90% silver quarters, which we’ll cover in detail in another article. Coin dealers usually sell bank rolls or large bags of this “junk silver” grouped together by face value.
Some common increments would be groups with a $1,000 face value. In general, a silver dime with a face value of ten cents contains about a fifth as much silver as a silver half dollar with a face value of fifty cents, and a silver quarter with a face value of twenty-five cents contains about a quarter as much silver as a silver dollar with a face value of a hundred cents. Always consider the type of metal composition instead of simply thinking about how much is the coin’s face value.
Which Other Types of Coins Are Silver?
If you live in the United States, you can sometimes find foreign silver coins in common circulation. The most common ones would be the 80% silver coins that come from Canada. Canadian 80% silver coins, including quarters, half dollars, and dollars, were mostly produced between the years 1920 and 1967.
Before 1920, the 92.5% pure (.925 fine) sterling silver standard was used for all British coins. You will also find some commemorative coins and proof sets issued by the US Mint. Limited quantities of these coins still contain 90% silver today.
The important thing to know is that all dimes, quarters, and half dollars minted in the USA by the year 1964 or earlier were made of 90% silver. Be sure to keep this fact in mind whenever you decide to buy or swap any of the silver coins you might have.
A good place to do that is The American Numismatic Society. This is an organization dedicated to the study of coins, medals, tokens, currency, and many other related objects from all past and present cultures. In general, numismatics refers to the study or collection of currency, such as coins, tokens, paper money, medals, and many other related objects.
Some other coins like the Eisenhower dollar and the Kennedy half dollar are also made of 40% silver. These coins can have very specific dates and the value of the coins is often determined by the dates that they were minted. It is common to find products like this at special coin shows and at certain types of coin dealers, and they can be very valuable collector’s items as well as good investments.
The Fluctuating Value of Silver
It is worth remembering that the value of silver changes constantly. This means the precise coin values of silver nickels will vary too. The silver content of a standard wartime nickel is .056 ounces. This means that when silver is valued at $15 an ounce as your spot price, a war nickel contains almost 85 cents of silver.
But when silver jumps to $30 an ounce as your spot price, the value of a silver nickel suddenly becomes about $1.70. It is important to keep these prices in mind when you are thinking about selling your coins. Just imagine having 100 silver nickel coins stashed away (with a face nickel value of $10).
Selling those would give you a nickel worth real value of $85 with silver valued at $15 an ounce as your spot price. But selling those would give you a real value of $170 when silver is valued at $30 an ounce as your spot price. Silver markets are extremely volatile and the price of the metal is often greatly determined by supply and demand.
When the supply of silver is low and the demand is high, you can really see rapid changes in the value of the metal. Silver has a wide range of industrial and manufacturing uses, and this is part of what causes the variations of supply and demand.
Thinking About Silver as an Investment
Although it does have that property of volatility, it has become very clear that silver can be one of the best investments you have available to you today. It is easily portable and it can be quickly exchanged for other goods of practical value.
If you happen to find any silver coins among your stash of change, be sure to hang onto those as long as you possibly can. They might be one of your best hedges against inflation or a currency that loses value very quickly. Along with gold and platinum, silver is one of the most valuable precious metals that you can own.
It is a good idea to have a small treasure chest in your home where you can toss all of your silver coins as soon as you happen to find them. You never know how much value they might hold for you one day!