Click to return from whence you came! Hobo Nickels - Hobby puts a new face on the 5-cent piece

Patti Conley ~ August 17, 2004

Beaver County Times, Tuesday, August 17, 2003

  Jeweler Mike Cirelli holds a buffalo nickel he engraved faces on at his shop in Beaver. The Times / Lucy Schaly

      BEAVER - He should have spoken to the hobos down by the railroad tracks in Ellwood City during those summers 40 years ago.

Mike Cirelli might have happened onto a hobo using hammers, nails and handmade tools to engrave a new face on the Indian head of a buffalo nickel.

If they had talked, the 47-year-old jeweler probably would know more now about the down-and-out men who, during and after the Depression, hopped railroad cars and came to town looking for work, a night's lodging or a meal.

He would have learned then that to pay for their meals, a safe place to sleep or as tokens of appreciation, hobos gave folks the altered buffalo nickels, aptly coined "hobo nickels." Businessmen that they needed to be, the hobos also doctored the 5-cent pieces in hopes of landing two bits for their unique carvings, maybe more.

Now, as he sits in the back room of his jewelry store in Beaver making modern versions of hobo nickels, Cirelli can only wonder who and why and how the hobos made their originals.

For countless hours they carved, often changing the profile of the Indian's head into a man wearing a rounded derby-type hat. They gave the character an ear, sometimes a beard, styled hair, a collar and maybe a cigar. What a hobo nickel looked like depended on the carver's talent, tools and time. Each was unique.

Back in those summers, the hobos were just there down by the railroad tracks along the river - not mean, and probably more fearful of the youngsters than the little boys were of them, Cirelli remembers.

And the novel buffalo nickels they made and gave away likely landed in boxes with other trinkets in bedroom dresser drawers.

As adult children and grandchildren sifted through the belongings of deceased loved ones, they came upon the unique buffalo coins, and then asked coin collectors what they were. Soon the hobo nickels were items for sale at antique fairs and in coin shops, and still are.

Now there's a new generation of hobo nickels, a modern version of the coins made with the same buffalo nickels that the United States minted from 1913 through 1938.

Cirelli is among the hand engravers and jewelers across the country who in recent years have made modern hobo nickels using high-tech compressed-air powered machines called gravers and old-fashioned engraving tools.

Earlier this year, prompted by a pinched nerve in his neck, Cirelli bought a graver to help relieve the stress on his body from 25 years of sitting hunched while setting stones and working on jewelry. He knew what hobo nickels were. Fifteen years ago, Cirelli set a handful of customer Sarah Foster's collection of hobo nickels into a necklace, and he saw photographs of modern nickels that were intricately detailed thanks to the gravers and magnification. He thought he could design them. It didn't look that hard, Cirelli told himself.

In April, Cirelli bought several buffalo nickels at an area coin shop, sat down in the back room at his jewelry store and got to making his own hobo nickels.

At high speeds, the graver sounds like a dentist's drill, and Cirelli looks like a researcher in a laboratory.

The practice sessions developed into a hobby, and Cirelli quickly segued from novice hobo nickel maker to self-assured designer. He figures he spends eight to 10 hours each work week hand-engraving hobo coins in between his regular work.

Cirelli joined that Original Hobo Nickel Society, a group of hobo nickel collectors organized in 1992, read the group's guidebook and has become versed in the hobo nickel lore. His designs resemble the originals, yet each has Cirelli's own style, such as a backward baseball cap with a New York Yankees logo.

Since spring, Cirelli's made almost two dozen hobo nickels, posted them on the store's Web site and has sold some for $80 to $150 each over the Internet.

Granted, his hobo nickels could someday turn a profit for him professionally. Cirelli said his interest goes beyond that and is rooted in the history of the buffalo nickel and hobos.

"I hope to keep up the tradition of the coins. It is something that is American. A foreign country can't take these away from us. America had the hobo nickel, and we'll keep it up and keep it going," said Cirelli, the father of two.

Michael, his 16-year-old son, has also made several hobo nickels. The carvings on the younger Cirelli's nickels are cruder than his father's simply because the elder Cirelli is an experienced hand-engraver.

Collector Sarah Foster gladly bought two of young Mike's hobo nickels and two of his dad's. They're now a part of the Beaver resident's necklace that includes 15 original hobo nickels.

Foster believes she bought her first hobo nickel around 1978 while looking for Victorian love tokens, elaborate engraved silver coins that people gave as gifts.

Over several years, the antique enthusiast collected the 15 originals and never paid more than $20 for any of the hobo nickels. In 1990, she bought two modern hobo nickels, but hadn't been looking for any more until Cirelli called her to tell her he was making them this spring. An unaltered buffalo nickel is also on the chain.

"There's a whole history lesson here," Foster said as she held the hobo necklace Cirelli set for her in 1985.

Now retired from the Beaver Area School District, Foster took the hobo necklace to class to illustrate what people did and where they traveled in the Depression for food and money.

Her favorite is a simple nickel a hobo apparently made using a nail and hammer. The hobo pounded pock marks into a beard, collar and helmet.

"It's so primitive," Foster, 68, said.

Like Cirelli, Foster knows some of the nickel's history, and like Cirelli, she remembers a hobo coming to Beaver in the 1940s.

Each spring, the hobo arrived and knocked on the door of a particular College Avenue home. He'd stay several days cleaning up the owner's yard, perhaps for meal or money. He slept in the family's wash house.

Did he give the residents a hobo nickel as appreciation for the work offered?

Foster doesn't know - and, like Cirelli, can only wonder.


Suppose you find what looks like a classic hobo nickel in your late Aunt Tillie's dresser drawer.

Interesting? Certainly. Is it valuable? Possibly.

Or might it be a modern hobo nickel made in recent years? Maybe.

"The classics are growing in popularity tremendously in the last six or seven years because it's a very collectible item and very difficult to find," said Bill Fivaz, past president of the Original Hobo Nickel Society and a classic hobo nickel collector since the early 1980s.

Society members estimate that hobos - whom Fivaz calls knights of the road - carved thousands of classic hobo nickels onto buffalo nickels in the Depression era through the 1950s and that probably not more than 10 percent are in collectors' hands.

"Ninety-percent are in Aunt Tillie's dresser drawer," the Dunwoody, Ga., resident said.

The society offers members and the public an authentication service. The owner submits the coin, and two qualified society members examine it. A written opinion of its worth and a photograph is then sent to the owner.

The society's Web site at also offers plenty of additional information about the classic and modern hobo coins, as does the Hobo Nickel Guidebook.

The information gathered from Fivaz and other sources includes the following:

      Ninety percent of the hobo nickels have a bearded man with a helmet on, but each is unique because of the individual carver's talents and the condition of the nickel.

      Classic hobo nickels are considered American folk art and have a speculated value, said Richard Doty, curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. "All you need is two guys bidding against each other," he said. Fivaz said he has sold a nice classic hobo nickel to interested collectors for $500 or more. Most classics average $100 to $200 each, and crudely carved hobo nickels range from $5 to $10 each, he said.

      Modern hobo nickels are very collectible depending on the expertise of the hand engravers, Fivaz said. If you see a hobo nickel at a show, ask the dealer if it is a classic or modern. Usually, the dealers will tell you, Fivaz said.

      Altering a buffalo nickel is not illegal if there is no fraudulent intent, said Mike White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C. Specifically, the altered coins cannot be represented as a product of the mint, nor can a hobo nickel be used as currency, White said.

Patti Conley can be reached at

〣eaver County Times/Allegheny Times 2004
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