A friend of mine just sent me a link to an article on Colossal, a blog that focuses on art and visual culture. He’d been wandering the internet and found Christopher Jobson‘s post on “hobo nickels”. Hobo nickels are carved modifications of the Buffalo Nickel, a coin that was struck from 1913-1938. Named for the eponymous buffalo that graced one of its sides, the Buffalo Nickel was latched onto by fledgling artists because its metallurgical blend of copper and nickel made it harder, and therefore easier to carve, than other coins.
During the Great Depression, men who were down on their luck spent their spare time turning out new interpretations of the nickel, using chisels and knives to chip away at the bison and turn it into a donkey, elephant or human wanderer. In their hands, the native profile on the obverse side of the coin was also reinvented, as a portrait of a friend, a famous historical figure, or occasionally, a skull.
Despite the ready availability of the cheap raw material, the hobo nickels themselves were painstakingly crafted, with some portraits taking over 100 hours to finish (Ferris 2000). Perhaps as a result of this craftsmanship, the nickels became worth more than merely five cents – as a portable, miniaturized form of folk art, hobo nickels could be bartered for valuable goods and services like a meal or a night’s shelter (Tabler 2000).
Real hobo nickels have become something of a collector’s item right now, and a thriving trade has sprung up on online auction houses like ebay. There’s also an Original Hobo Nickel Society, whose members identify and auction original hobo nickels. The originals typically sell for a few hundred dollars a coin, though a coin carved by acclaimed master Bert Weigand sold for $12,500 at an auction in September 2012 (Roach 2012). Interestingly, the nickel-carving trade itself is also making a comeback. An artist known only as “Mrthe” has an extensive collection available for perusal and purchase on his website. His coins provide a beautiful, though occasionally anachronistic, tribute to the early 20th century originals, and he is particularly skilled at mortuary depictions of the medium.
Given the rising popularity of this unique, numismatic form of early 20th century Americana, a penny for someone’s thoughts might be too low a price to pay these days…
Ferris, David. 2000. More Than a Nickel’s Worth: A History of Hobo Nickels and Their Role in American Numismatics. PCGS: Professional Coin Grading Service. http://www.pcgs.com/News/More-Than-A-Nickels-Worth-A-History-Of-Hobo-Nickels Accessed 18 January 2014.
Jobson, Chris. 2011. Skull Nickels. http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2011/09/skull-nickels/ Accessed 18 January 2014.
Kuwahara RT, Skinner RB 3rd, & Skinner RB Jr (2001). Nickel coinage in the United States: the history of a common contact allergen. The Western journal of medicine, 175 (2), 112-4 PMID: 11483555
Roach, Steve. 2012. ‘Hobo Nickel’ brings $13,750. Coin World. http://www.coinworld.com/articles/hobo-nickel-brings-13-750 Accessed 19 January 2013.
Tabler, Dave. 2010. Hobo Nickels. Appalachian History: Stories, Quotes and Anecdotes. http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2010/04/hobo-nickels-2.html Accessed 18 January 2014