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What Is the Hobo Nickel?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 23, 2024
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A hobo nickel is a modified coin that typically bears a portrait or other image that integrates well with the original image on the coin. Techniques for carving these coins have changed over time, but the tools needed and materials required are typically inexpensive. The story behind these nickels goes that a traveling man without income could take a single nickel and turn it into a work of art and then exchange that art for more than the nickel was worth. Almost all hobo nickels bear faces of some kind, although some modify the non-face image on the nickel to create animals or other shapes. Some people collect hobo nickels, and a history of these items and their creators can be extracted from particular artistic conventions used by specific artists.

Coin engraving as an art form predates the emergence of the hobo nickel, but the physical qualities of nickels made this coin highly popular among engravers. Nickels are soft, large, and easy to work with, making this an ideal medium for engravers. Before hobo nickels, potty coins were the most popular engraving coins. Many of the techniques used on these coins carried forward into nickel carving.

The art found on a hobo nickel does depend in part on the art provided on the nickel. This means that as nickel designs changed over time, the art that was carved into those designs changed as well. Most nickels bear a profile portrait of some type because of the large face found on buffalo nickels. The features of this face are often altered in the carving process, changing the nose, ear, and beard. It is also possible to carve the buffalo side of a buffalo nickel, creating trains, camels, or other figures.

Although it is not uncommon to find a signed hobo nickel, some nickels are thought to be made by the same artist because they bear similar artistic qualities. Artists would often carve ears, noses, or beards in highly unique ways, making it easy to identify coins carved by the same artist. The identity of these carvers is not known, but by tracing their artwork it becomes possible to know something about their life.

Coin engraving is still a popular art form, and current coin engravers do still work with nickels. A modern hobo nickel is typically not used as an item for exchange, but rather purely as art. Some engravers add special materials to the nickels, such as gold or enamel. With special tools, additional designs and more details become possible.

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