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What Is the Hobo Nickel?

The Hobo Nickel is a unique piece of American folk art, born from the creativity of itinerant workers who intricately carved their own designs into small-denomination coins, primarily nickels. These miniature masterpieces, often reflecting the hardships and stories of their creators, have become treasured collectibles. Curious about the tales etched in metal? Discover the journey of these coins and their makers.
Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett

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.

Woman painting
Woman painting

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a hobo nickel and how did it originate?

A hobo nickel is a sculptural art form involving the creative modification of small-denomination coins, traditionally the buffalo nickel. This craft began in the early 20th century, particularly during the Great Depression, when hobos would carve unique designs into the coins to pass the time or trade for goods and services. The buffalo nickel, minted from 1913 to 1938, was favored due to its larger size and the softness of its metal, which made it easier to carve.

What are the most common designs found on hobo nickels?

Common designs on hobo nickels include altered portraits of the Native American or the buffalo, which are transformed into characters or scenes by the carver. These can range from comedic figures to political portraits, and from animals to landscapes. Each piece is unique, reflecting the individual style and skill of the artist who created it. The creativity and variety of designs are what make hobo nickels highly collectible.

How are hobo nickels made?

Hobo nickels are crafted using a variety of tools, such as knives, chisels, and engraving tools. Artists, often starting with a buffalo nickel, would painstakingly carve away the original design to create a new image. This process could take many hours, depending on the complexity of the design. Modern hobo nickel artists may also use power tools and microscopes to achieve intricate details in their work.

Are hobo nickels considered legal currency?

While hobo nickels are created from genuine currency, the extensive modifications made to them generally render them no longer acceptable as legal tender. However, they are highly valued as collectibles and works of art. The U.S. Treasury Department generally does not object to coin alterations unless done fraudulently, so the creation and sale of hobo nickels as art is permitted.

Where can I find or purchase hobo nickels?

Hobo nickels can be found at coin collecting shows, auctions, online marketplaces, and through dealers specializing in numismatic collectibles. Prices can vary widely based on the artistry, rarity, and historical significance of each piece. Enthusiasts may also join communities or associations, such as the Original Hobo Nickel Society, to learn more about hobo nickels and to purchase or trade them with other collectors.

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