The final design for the Jefferson Nickel
The Jefferson nickel, an essential coin in Americans’ pockets for over fifty years, was designed and first minted during the New Deal.
On March 6, 1938, The Sunday Star newspaper (Washington, DC) reported that, “The Section of Painting and Sculpture, Procurement Division, Treasury Department, announces a competition for a design for a new 5-cent coin, to be known as the ‘Jefferson Nickel.’” The award was $1,000 (about $20,000 in 2021 dollars).
The judges of the competition were: Nellie Tayloe Ross, director of the U.S. Mint; Sidney Waugh, creator of several New Deal artworks; Albert Stewart, whose sculptures adorn the San Francisco Mint; and Heinz Warneke, a sculptor whose work can be found in D.C. at the Clinton Federal Building, Department of Interior Building, and National Zoo.
The U.S. Treasury explained how the artists would submit their designs: “The models [of the designs] should not be signed. They should be accompanied by a plain, sealed envelope, enclosing the sculptor’s name and address. These envelopes will be carefully numbered when received with the same number as the designs they accompany and will remain unopened until after selection of the best designs” (Bulletin 14, 1937-1938).
In April 1938, the winner was announced: Felix Schlag, “a poor, young, naturalized German, of Chicago” (The State, November 15, 1938). The award was bittersweet for Schlag; his wife had died of pneumonia while he was working on the design: “It was hard. My wife had been ill a half year; I worked while she slept and I was doing some night work at that time, too” (St. Joseph News-Press, April 22, 1938).
Schlag’s nickel (which he modified from the initial design to the final version) was minted for 66 years, 1938 to 2004. Beginning in 1966, the initials “FS” were added to the nickel to honor Schlag.
“National Competition For New Design For Five Cent Coin Open To All American Sculptors,” Treasury Department Art Projects, Bulletin 14, July 1937 – January 1938, p. 3.
Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1939, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940, p. 174.
Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, For the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1939, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939, p. 5.
“Competition Announced for A New Jefferson Nickel,” The Sunday Star (Washington, DC), March 6, 1938, p. F-5 (accessed June 7, 2022).
“New Jefferson Nickel Designed By Man Who Came To U.S. In 1929,” The Boston Globe, April 22, 1938, p. 15.
“Chicago Man’s Design Chosen: Sculptor Worked on Entry for Jefferson Nickel in Tragic Atmosphere,” Associated Pressarticle, in the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Missouri), April 22, 1938, p. 8.
“Jefferson Nickel Makes Its Debut In Nation Today,” Associated Press article, in The State (Columbia, South Carolina), November 15, 1938, p. 1.
Project originally submitted by Brent McKee on June 8, 2022.
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