By David McCormick
In the 1920s and ’30s a nickel would buy a cup of Joe; but for hobos, Bert Wiegand and Bo Hughes, their daedal coins — hobo-hand-carved-nickels were more valuable than the run-of-the-mill-five-cent piece. Their unique coins might buy a hot meal, or maybe coax a rail line detective to look the other way as they hopped a freight. Today, those special nickels are dearer; they are now valued at $50 to $100 or even in excess of $1,000.
A ‘hobo’ nickel is an artistically altered buffalo, or Indian head nickel. The nickel first minted in 1913 with the large profile of a Native American was a natural attraction for those carving their artwork onto a coin. The thickness and malleable quality of the coin provided an excellent surface for the engraver to add his or her personal vignette.
The nickel’s low monetary value also added to its desirability for carvers; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, in those early years, willing to take a silver dollar out of circulation just to embellish it; discounting its face value.
Engraving coins didn’t begin with the 1913 nickel; most likely it started centuries ago. However, in mid and late 1800s, engraving one’s personalization onto a coin was a common practice. Coins were ground smooth on one or both sides, and the engraver’s pictorial creation was engraved onto the coin. Many of those coins were used as identification tokens.
During the American Civil War, engraved copper, silver and sometimes gold pieces were used as soldiers’ dog tags—precursor to today’s military ID tags. Coins were also altered to serve as pieces of jewelry — incorporated into pins, bracelets or necklaces. Many were tokens of remembrance or the tithing of one’s affections for another.
The minting and circulation of the 1913 buffalo nickel was the beginning of the ‘hobo’ nickel. That large-side profile of an Indian became the mise en scene on which the engraver added his or her personal vignette. The large buffalo on the reverse was also reworked into another type of animal; but far less often, it offered a more limited canvas. From that point on, the coin artists, in this purely American phenomenon, plied their craft.
The first artists were migratory hoe boys (the meaning behind the acronym, ‘hobo’) who travelled the rails in the first half of the twentieth century, looking for farm work from planting time through late fall — not tramps as the name later implied. These original artists armed with no more than a knife and sometimes a hand punch, turned out the original ‘hobo’ nickels. Along the way, newer artists learned the craft and with modern engraving tools, turned out some more detailed work.
The buffalo nickel was predominately the coin of choice over the decades. In 1941, the Jefferson nickel was put into circulation. A number of artists used the Jefferson nickel as the base for their personal design, but several of the old hands continued using the buffalo five cent piece.
The granddaddy of the hobo nickel phenomenon was Bertram Wiegand. He created his first hobo nickel around 1913. On a number of occasions, he found himself just skirting the law or running headlong into it. During the Great Depression, Bert ran afoul of the law and spent a year or more in prison. According to legend, he carved nickels for the guards, which helped him pass the time. In later years he found himself on the flea market hawking his hobos.
It was in Asheville, North Carolina during the 1940s that Bert faded from the picture, but not before passing along his craft to George Washington “Bo” Hughes. Hughes, a bit younger than Wiegand, was born to a sharecropper, possibly a former slave, in Mississippi around 1900 or so. “Bo” was prolific. Beginning to carve a few years later than Bert, he produced thousands of ‘hobo’ nickels well into the 1980s and he credited Wiegand with his success, freely admitting that “Bert taught me ‘bout everything I know.”
This becomes quite apparent when comparing coins by Bert and ‘Bo’; some are quite similar. Many of Bo’s hobo nickels were left unsigned, with a few tagged with his initials: GH or GWH. Bertram Wiegand identified a number of his pieces in a unique manner; removing the L, I and Y from the word Liberty on the face of the coin, leaving only BERT.
Several hobo nickel carvers emerged during those early years, but most remain unidentified and their names lost to time. But their legacies have endured; many of the original unknowns have been given nicknames, such as ‘peanut ear’ ‘flat nose’ and ‘no neck’ based on personal characteristics in their designs.
Through the years, the line delineating what is considered a ‘real’ hobo nickels has shifted. Some diehards believed that only the hobo nickels carved by the original hobos were authentic, but today’s modern carvings are also included as ‘hobo’ nickels. A major milestone in the creation of hobo nickels came about with the publication of articles and a book about hobo nickels written by Del Romines in 1982. His book attracted a new cadre of hobo nickel engravers and drew collectors eager to acquire the coin sculptures.
The prices of hobo nickels cover a wide range, with some starting under $20 and going well into the hundreds of dollars, and certain prized examples costing as much as several thousand. (At the 2008 OHNS auction a nickel carved by Bert Wiegand garnered $9,020.) These pocket change carvings are offered at prices agreeable to any collector’s budget. These engraved coins are of great interest to numismatists, and collectors of art and engravings. Many of the coins are within the realm of miniature portraiture. Some enthusiasts are attracted to specific themes; maybe Indians, or famous historical figures such as Lincoln, or perhaps a Civil War soldier.
Many collectors follow the work of specific artists, old and new. And, there are many hobo artists to choose from. There are also levels of skill and quality of work, which is reflected in the prices realized. Rarity is also a factor. Several hobo nickels may be found on eBay, as well as live and other online auctions and sellers.
As with any collectible, authenticating the old original hobo nickels requires some expertise. Cut lines on early hobo nickels show wear, and are smooth to the touch; debris within the cuts, as well as scrapes and gouges, are apparent. All original buffalo hobo coins have early dates and many are carved on one side only; in most cases, with their only tool — a penknife. After the publication of Del Romines’ book in 1982, some of the new nickel artists copied from illustrations, of “Bo’s” nickel carvings, found in Romines’ book, and tried passing them off as authentic.
For the past 20 or 25 years, a number of contemporary artists, men and women, have raised the level of the art form in turning out superior hobo nickels; many sign their work and number the pieces sequentially. Designs on the earliest nickels were simple; many based on facial anatomy — beards, ears and noses. Different hats were added — often a derby or some style of cap. As time has passed, more modern themes have appeared: hippies, bikers, several cartoon characters and contemporary figures and designs. The levels of skill vary — from a rudimentary basic alteration to the existing portraiture on the face of the nickel, to completely transforming the coin into something altogether different. One wonderful example of sculptured art is Sam Alfonso’s ‘Julius Caesar’ with a raised, 24 karat laurel headpiece; each leaf is carved individually.
Carver Stephen D. Cox offers a superior, classic hobo nickel, with copper inlay feather, signed on the reverse with his initials, SDC, valued at $250.
Another great example, hand-carved by J.W. Hughey, a contemporary design, “the Masquerade Skull” was priced over $500. Hughey is, as are many nickel artists, a registered member of the Original Hobo Nickel Society.
Another superior piece of nickel artistry: a 1936 buffalo nickel, entitled, “Greenman” by John Schipp, sold for a little over $160. A superior example by Joe Paonessa, the driver fetched $330 in a previous Original Hobo Nickel Society auction. Goldsmith and engraver, Bob Shamey’s extravagant ‘Chief Costalotta’ hobo 1913 nickel, is embellished with two diamonds, and a 24-karat gold headband
Occasionally, although not as receptive to carving, coins other than buffalo and Jefferson nickels — quarters, half-dollars as well as silver dollars — have been artfully altered. Despite being different coins they are still considered in the realm of hobo nickels.
Today, many examples on the market are pressed or stamped; most sellers advertised then honestly as such and price them accordingly—as low as a few dollars.
For those seeking information about collecting Hobo nickels, there are a number of reliable resources. Aside from Romines 1982 book, there is an updated version by his wife, Joyce Ann Romines, entitled, The Hobo Nickel, republished in 1996. This edition contains additional data supplementing the 1982 publication.
Another great source on hobo nickels is Stephen P. Alpert’s The OHNS Hobo Nickel Guidebook, now in its third printing. And the OHNS (Original Hobo Nickel Society, www.hobonickels.org), offers a wealth of practical knowledge to newcomers and veterans alike. The society authenticates and grades the nickels, using a five-rating scale, from crude to superior.
- Alpert’s Artist’s Galleries, www.hobonickel.org/alpert05.htm.
- Article: Collecting Hobo Nickels; A Hobby in Transition, by Leon Worden, COINage Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 7 July 2006.
- Nickel Carver’s ShowCase, www.hobonickel.org/showcase.htm.
- Numismatic News, www.numismaticnews.net.
- The Hobo Nickel, by Joyce Ann Romines, 1996.
- The OHNS Hobo Nickel Guidebook, by Stephen P. Alpert, 2001.
David McCormick holds a master’s degree in Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts. He was employed by the City of Springfield, Mass., for several years. Now retired, McCormick works as a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Naval History, Elks Magazine and Wild West Magazine.
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