Although the Buffalo Nickel had it’s fair share of issues during it’s time in circulation from 1913 to 1938 (see our previous entry), one arena where it found nothing but popularity was among artists. One form of art as unique as the individuals that made them are Hobo Nickels. Created mostly by transient people, Hobo Nickels were essentially coins turned into pieces of folk art. Engravers would alter the obverse (face) of the coin, to resemble their own face or that of some other character, and then change the reverse of the coin to resemble an animal. This type of art is not only extremely unique, but it encapsulates a period of time defined by struggle, hard work, creativity and survival.
Coin engraving dates back all the way back to the 18th century, when engravers used to turn any of the Seated Liberty coins into “potty coins” by modifying lady liberty so that she appeared to be sitting on a chamber pot. Most of this art was found outside the US in counties like Britain, France and South Africa.
The arrival of the Buffalo NIckel in 1913 brought this form of art to the United States. The nickel was the perfect medium because it was thicker and harder than other coins in circulation and the Native American’s head was much bigger than the faces on the other coins. This gave engravers more room to work and allowed for finer details.
In the 1930’s, as a result of the depression, this form of artwork flourished. Thousands of men were out of work and spent their days traveling the railroads, looking for work. These people, commonly called “Hobos”, considered themselves far different from the “bums” and “tramps” of their time. Hobos were a nomadic group of people who worked hard when work was available, stayed out of trouble and considered themselves to be free spirited. They were also called “knights of the road.” The small, round pieces of art they created were often traded for food, shelter or other necessities.
Creating a hobo nickel was no small feat. It was not uncommon for a single piece to take up to 100 hours to complete. Artists used things like nails. chisels and knives to carefully construct these pieces of art. No one coin looks the same.
Although most of the hobos creating these nickels preferred to stay anonymous, a few names have surfaced over the years. Probably the most famous of these was George Washington “Bo” Hughes. A nomadic man from an early age, Bo met a man by the name of Bert during his stay at a “jungle” (the term commonly used to describe a hobo camp). Bert was a craftsman and taught Bo the art of engraving and altering coins. He caught on quick and began churning out coins left and right. His coins stood out among the many being created at the time because his designs were more innovative than other artists and he was not afraid to experiment with his technique.
In 1957, Bo Huges had an accident involving a chisel, rendering his hand nearly unusable. That combined with years of hard, physical labor brought his career to an end. He did continue to carve Hobo nickels to the extent that he was able until his death in 1982.
It is estimated that around 100,000 hobo nickels were created during their hay day, by various artists. On average, original Hobo nickels sell for between $100 and $400, but a few have sold for as much as $3000.
Today, artists continue to create Hobo Nickels, although their history is not the same. Power tools have replaced nails and knives and the subject matter has changed to include popular modern characters and themes. It is estimated that the number of modern Hobo nickels (created after the 1980’s) will quickly surpass the number of classic ones. They are no longer traded for goods or created by the idle hands of hard working men out of work and travelling the railroads. The art form lives on, but the story has changed.