What Are Hobo Nickels?
A hobo nickel is carved as opposed to engraved. Little by little metal is shaved away or mounded to create a miniature bas relief sculpture. Historically these coins were made by hoboes, itinerant workers, who often traveled by hopping freight trains. The hobo's tools were primitive and consisted of awls, nails, pocket knives, a small hammer, screwdrivers, and even found pieces of metal which were manipulated into makeshift tools. A metal "punch" was also hammered into the coin to create a divot for an eye, an expanded nostril, or texture for hair.
The Buffalo nickel is the trademark host coin for the hobo nickel. An early date high grade coin may help date or identify an artist but collectors are most interested in the carving quality. Desirable attributes include: deep carving, unusual subjects, altered facial features, raised or pushed metal (often a hat brim), and well smoothed fields. While the date is not that important, it is preferable to have the date and/or "LIBERTY" retained in the design.
The Buffalo nickel was available and circulating during the great depression. The large Indian head, with its fairly high relief, gave the craftsmen a lot of area to work with. The coin was a low enough denomination and not precious metal so it was affordable. There are a few period examples done on Indian cents and wheat cents but they are seldom encountered. Some still consider them hobo nickel art even though they are not actually on nickels.
Using primitive homemade tools, the hobo craftsmen re-carved the Indian. The most frequent theme is a man in a derby hat but there were also clowns, Rabbis, soldiers, other Indians, even women, and more. Occasionally hoboes carved the reverse and on rare occurrences made two-sided carvings. Original reverse carved themes include a turtle, donkey, box car, and miniature men. Reverse carvings are far less common than the obverse portraits.