When I was researching the Buffalo nickel two weeks ago, I was surprised to see strange versions of the coin’s ‘indian head’ obverse, the indian ‘heads’ side wearing unusual headgear that clearly wasn’t the Mint’s original design. As I dug deeper, I discovered that the coin was once a Buffalo Nickel, but an ingenious artist had altered the coin to their own creative specifications.
These unique coins are colloquially known as “Hobo Nickels“. According to the apocryphal tale of these coins’ origins, the 1930s were a tough time for the economy, and tramps, bums, and hobos traveled around the country looking for work. They were hardly unskilled men; often, they had been trained in a trade, but unable to find a place that would hire them. As a means of passing time, so the story goes, these hobos would alter the surface of a nickel to better appeal their artistic sensibilities. The nickel is a good fit for the engraving hobo: even at the time, it was a relatively cheap medium, the metal blend was soft enough to be manipulated well, and it was the thickest coin worth less than fifty cents (and I doubt, in the 1930s, anyone would waste a 50¢ piece on a hobby), leaving plenty of sub-surface metal to carve into.
The practice didn’t spring out of thin air, the product of a bored transient – altering coins as works of art had been a past-time for many years. The most recognizable relative of the Hobo Nickel are ‘love tokens’. These coins were ground smooth on one side, and an image was engraved into the surface. The engraving was usually very low relief, because often quite a bit of the coin was removed, but the artistic quality was often quite good. These were made to be given away to the object of a person’s affection, whether as a sign of gratitude or undying love. As an artistic base metal, coins were often used in the place of other materials, like the welded-coin ash tray I saw at the antique shop yesterday (sorry, no pictures). Your local museum might even let you alter your own pennies, using a coin-operated press.
If you haven’t heard otherwise yet, you might still hold the belief that mutilating coins in this fashion will send you to jail: while it is against the law to carve, cut, or otherwise destroy a coin, the U.S. Mint’s rules on coin alteration hinges on any attempt to do so fraudulently, which mostly had effect when our coins were actually made of a precious metal. Even as recently as the 1960s, silver and copper were still large components in coin construction, and in the early 20th century gold $2 and $5 coins were legal tender. An unscrupulous person could carve away parts of a gold $5 or a silver dollar, use the coin as its face value, but sell the removed precious metal for a profit. That’s why larger-denomination coins have ridges around the edge: if you receive a silver dollar with smooth edges, it could mean the coin had been shaved around the circumference for its silver. Nickels, however, were composed of a less-than-valuable metal on purpose, and nobody intended to use a Hobo Nickel as real currency, so the Mint had little to complain about.
Because each Hobo Nickel is an original piece of art, carved by hand on a unique coin, these must be treated more as artwork than as a collectible coin. Depending on the artist, the coin may or may not be signed, and the quality of the workmanship varies to similar degrees as love tokens. The ‘original’ Hobo Nickels, ones actually carved during the time the Buffalo Nickel was in circulation, were carved between the 1930s and 1960s; some of the original artisans kept making them much later, for their entire lives. As this art form grew in popularity among collectors in the 1980s and 1990s, some engravers tried their hand at the art, and the hobby began to grow among artists producing modern Hobo Nickels, using vintage Buffalo Nickels as their canvas. Early Hobo Nickels were made without the advantage of power tools and advanced engraving technology, so they can have a crude, unpolished texture compared to the new carvings. Also, as they were made during the time wen these nickels were first minted, the un-carved portions of the coin are no more worn than the carving itself, while later-made Hobo Nickels were carved from less-valuable, more heavily circulated coins that show more wear on the unengraved sections. An older Hobo Nickel will also have more of a patina and age-grime throughout, while a newer one will have much cleaner new engravings. The art has seen some minor attempts at forgery, but most misidentification arises from poorly documented pieces, possibly made by somebody in modern times on a lark, but by being unsigned or undated may be mistaken for an early Hobo Nickel. Modern Hobo Nickel makers do attempt to sign and date their works, to ensure they get the credit for their tiny metal work of art. The Original Hobo Nickel Society has attempted to keep track of and identify modern and vintage engravers, and catalog their work for future identification and proper valuation of the art form.