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A History of Hobo Nickels
Stephen P. Alpert ~ September 20, 2003
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OHNS meeting presentation at the Long Beach Coin Exposition.
The art of altering the features on a coin predates hobo nickels, and was
well established before the appearance of the buffalo nickel in 1913.
Early Altered/Engraved Coins, 1850's to 1912
The Buffalo Nickel
Classic Old Hobo Nickels, 1913 to 1940
Later Old Hobo Nickels, 1941 to 1981
Modern Hobo Nickels
Collecting Old vs New Hobo Nickels
Click to return from whence you came! Early Altered/Engraved Coins, 1850's to 1912

   The altering of coins goes back to the late 1700s or earlier. But I will pick up the story in the 1850s and in this section go up to 1912. In this period, the predominant form of coin alteration was the "potty coin," engraved on Seated Liberty design coins (half dime through trade dollar). Also during this time period was the heyday of the love token - a coin (usually silver) was machine- ground smooth on one or both sides. It was then engraved with initials, monograms, names, scenes, etc., often with an ornate border. Hundreds of thousands of coins probably were altered in this manner, with a pin added on the back or they were put on bracelets and necklaces. The love token fad faded out in the early 1900s; love tokens engraved on buffalo nickels are rare.

   During this time period, hobo-style coin alterations were being done in some foreign countries, primarily England, France, and South Africa.

Click to return from whence you came! The Buffalo Nickel

   When the Indian Head or Buffalo nickel was introduced in 1913, it was a natural attraction for coin engravers. The big Indian head was a radical departure from previous (and even subsequent) coin designs. It just begged to be altered. The head was much larger than heads on previous coins, which gave the artists a bigger template to work on, and allowed for more fine details.

   On earlier coins, the head was much smaller relative to the size of the coin. For example, on a Lincoln cent, the head is about one-sixth the area of the obverse. The Indian's head is about five-sixths of the obverse (plus the nickel is a larger coin). Large heads did appear on some earlier coins, such as the Morgan dollar and the Columbian half dollar commemoratives of 1892-3, but these coins were rarely altered, possibly due to their high face value.

   Another important factor is that the head on the new buffalo nickel was a man. The heads on nearly all earlier coins were of women (Liberty heads, Indian head cent, Barber and Morgan heads). A male head has larger and more rugged features (nose, chin, brow) that can be altered in many ways.

   Have you ever seen a female-headed coin nicely altered into a man? I haven't (modern carvings on old coins excluded). It's much harder to alter a female Liberty into a man (or hobo with beard) that it is to alter the Indian's head into another male, or a woman. On the buffalo nickel, the profile can be carved down to feminine features. But on female heads, features would have to be built up to resemble a man, a more difficult task.

   So the appearance of the buffalo nickel in 1913 generated the beginning of hobo nickels. The coin, with a low face value of five cents, was affordable to work on. And even the buffalo on the reverse lent itself to being altered into another animal or a man with a backpack.

Click to return from whence you came! Classic Old Hobo Nickels, 1913 to 1940

   Many talented coin engravers, as well as newcomers, started creating hobo nickels in 1913 when the buffalo nickel was put in circulation. This accounts for the wide variety of engraving styles and quality found on carved 1913 nickels. More old hobo nickels are found on 1913-dated nickels than any other pre-1930s date.

   Many artists made hobo nickels from the teens to twenties, with new artists joining in as the years went by. Some talented artists began making hobo nickels in the mid to late 1930s. Bert began carving nickels in the teens, and his student "Bo" began carving in the late teens. "Bo" carved throughout this period (and up to 1980). During this period, buffalo nickels were the predominant nickels in circulation.

Click to return from whence you came! Later Old Hobo Nickels, 1941 to 1981

   These years were a transition period, during which the buffalo nickel was replaced in circulation by the Jefferson nickel. Some veteran old nickel carvers such as "Bo" and Bert continued making hobo nickels in the classic old style. "Bo" in fact did his best work in the early 1950s when he carved many spectacular cameo portrait hobo nickels.

   During this 40-year period, many new carvers appeared, and some of the new styles and subjects carved resemble the 1980s modern hobo nickels. There were carvings of ethnic people (Chinese woman with triangular hat), hippies with long hair and glasses, men wearing floppy hats, etc. Some of these new artists (none greatly talented) used new techniques such as power engravers, vibrating tools, and felt marker pens to color the hair black.

   Over these decades, the buffalo nickel gradually disappeared from circulation, and most engravings were on worn coins. "Bo" for example had to get buffalo nickels for carving from coin dealers, some of whom commissioned him to carve and provided the coins.

Click to return from whence you came! Modern Hobo Nickels

   Some carvers who were active in the 1960s and 1970s probably continued carving buffalo nickels into the 1980s. In the early 1980s J. Press taught J. Allen how to make hobo nickels (she is still active today). Their coins were altered using punches (dashes, dots, arcs, crescents, stars) and some carving of the profile. The area behind the head is usually rough from dressing with a power tool. They created standard design hobo nickels (derby and beard), as well as many modern subjects, such as occupational busts (fireman, railroad engineer, pizza chef), famous people (Uncle Sam, Einstein), hippies, and others.

   A major event occurred in the early 1980s, demarcating the transition from "old" to "modern" hobo nickels. This was a series of articles in the numismatic press by Del Romines on hobo nickels, followed by the publication of his first book, Hobo Nickels, in 1982. Both were predominantly about "Bo" and his carvings.

   This resulted in some new artists entering the field and primarily copying "Bo's" nickel artwork from the illustrations in Romines' book. The two major Bo-style copycats were John Dorusa and Frank Brazzell. Together they produced maybe 20,000 or more modern carved nickels, most of which were copies of "Bo's" designs. Dorusa even copied "Bo's" "GH" signature (for George Washington Hughes) on many of this early creations. Pressure from prominent hobo nickel collectors such as Bill Fivaz fortunately convinced Dorusa to stop carving "GH" and put his own initials or name on his works. Other non-Bo designs were also made by these two artists (conquistadors, Dick Tracy, skulls, etc.) but the large number of "Bo" copies lead collectors to label all modern carved nickels as "Neo-Bo's," a term no longer used today.

   Other carvers also appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, creating all sorts of modern style and subject carvings (cartoon characters, witches, animals, etc., as well as standard hat and beard designs). All the nickel carvers of the 1980s to mid 1900s did below average to average quality work, with some above average output. But circa 1995 the first of the modern master engravers began carving nickels and creating superior quality carvings.

   This was Ron Landis, of Arkansas. For about 4 years Ron was the only nickel carver creating superior carvings, at the rate of only one to two dozen per year (all signed, numbered, and dated). Then other professional engravers learned about hobo nickels and started carving superior works also: Sam Alfano, Steve Adams, Mike Pezak, Joe Paonessa, etc.

   In addition, some newcomers took up nickel carving and mastered the craft quickly, such as Arthur Hutchison and Bill "Billzach" Jameson. Plus many other new people have started carving nickels in recent years, making pieces ranging from crude to superior in quality. There many be several dozen people currently carving nickels.

   Some current prolific carvers are converting from quantity to quality: making fewer pieces of high artistic quality (as the market is flooded with lower quality quickly-made carvings). Modern carvings of Superior quality sell for about the same prices as old original nickels of equal quality by unknown artists.

Click to return from whence you came! Collecting Old vs New Hobo Nickels

   The Original Hobo Nickel Society was created in 1992 for collectors primarily interested in old original carved nickels. Nice old hobo nickels that were worth about $10 to $50 each in the 1980s shot up in value to about $100 to $1000 each by the mid-1990s (prices have come down since then except for the top-quality works).

   From the early 1980s to present, modern lesser-quality carvings could and still can be purchased for as little as $5.00 to $10.00 each. Many new collectors found it hard to obtain nice old original hobo nickels (as they are so scarce, and costly) so they began collecting the readily obtainable and cheap modern works.

   There has been concern among some OHNS Board members that too much emphasis is being given to modern carvings and the artists making them in BoTales, and that proportionately too many modern hobo nickels are appearing in recent OHNS auctions. But information is much more readily obtainable on modern carvers and their creations, than for old hobo nickel artists. And the present-day documenting of current carvers and their works, will be very much appreciated by future collectors and scholars of hobo nickels.

   OHNS is devoted to all collectors of hobo nickels, both old and new, and prefers the term "modern carvings" for the recently created carved coins. The term "hobo nickel" is a generic term for altered nickels, and does not imply that hoboes made most of the early carved nickels. Obviously, none of today's artists are true hoboes, so some collectors object to calling their creations "hobo nickels."

   I estimate that about 100,000 (and possibly as many as 200,000) old hobo nickels were created from 1913 to 1980. Modern artists have been and are cranking out altered nickels in such large numbers, that probably within the next few years, the modern carvings will outnumber the total of old hobo nickels. Most of the 100,000-plus old hobo nickels are not yet in the hands of collectors. But just about all the modern carvings are. So among numismatists, the modern carvings probably already far outnumber the old hobo nickels.

   And who knows, maybe a hundred or several hundred years from now, future numismatists or folk art scholars will consider all hobo nickels of the 1913 to early 21st century as more or less contemporary creations. The literature we are creating now may help future collectors distinguish the early classic period of hobo nickel artwork from the modern works of the past couple of decades.

[ This article is based on the presentation by Steve Alpert at the OHNS meeting of Sept. 20, 2003 at the Long Beach Coin Exposition. ]
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Webpage last updated:   Thursday, March 25, 2004