Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): In 1938 the nickel was redesigned. Entering a competition with 390 artists, Felix Schlag captured an award of $1,000 for his motif picturing Thomas Jefferson on the obverse and a corner view of Jefferson’s home, Monticello, on the reverse. In the final production design, the profile of Monticello was changed to a front view. The finished product depicted a head and shoulders portrait of Jefferson facing left, with IN GOD WE TRUST to the left and LIBERTY and the date to the right.
The reverse depicted Monticello at the center, E PLURIBUS UNUM above and the inscriptions of MONTICELLO, FIVE CENTS and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA below.
Certain issues from 1942 were made of a different metallic composition and are known as “wartime” nickels. These can be distinguished by a large mintmark above Monticello, including “P” for Philadelphia, the first time the nation’s main mint displayed its mark. Apart from these, the type remained the same from 1938 to 2004 at which time the “Westward Journey” Nickel program was initiated. These pieces featured both revised obverse portraits of Jefferson, as well as reverses to mark the theme of Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase territory.
In 1966, the initials of the designer, FS, were added to the obverse edge beneath the shoulder, however this is not considered a significant change. While there are no really scarce date and mintmark combinations, the Guidebook recognizes numerous overdates, overmintmarks, and doubled dies that will challenge the collector endeavoring to complete a set with all recognized varieties. The 1950-D is an interesting date, as its low mintage of 2.6 million pieces was recognized early on, and it became a target of speculators in the late 50s and early 60s who drove its price up to an astonishing $25 per coin by 1964.
Jefferson nickels are readily available in all grades. However business strikes which display a full set of steps on Monticello are elusive for certain issues, and command significant premiums.
-- Reprinted with permission from "United States Coins by Design Types - An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor" by Q. David Bowers