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1938-2003 Jefferson 5-Cent Coins

Obverse – Thomas Jefferson

Early in 1938, the United States Treasury Department announced a public competition to solicit designs to replace those that were featured on the obverse and reverse of the 5-cent coin (nickel) that year.

The rules of the competition specified that the new nickel’s obverse was to feature an authentic portrait of Thomas Jefferson and that the coin’s reverse would recognize Monticello, his historic home near Charlottesville, Virginia.

After 390 sets of models were submitted by some of the country’s most accomplished artists and sculptors, the designs of German-American sculptor Felix Schlag were selected, earning him the advertised $1,000 prize in April 1938.

The portrait he submitted, the familiar left-facing profile of Thomas Jefferson, was based on a bust by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon and featured Jefferson dressed in a period coat and wearing a traditional 18th Century peruke wig.

For the next sixty-seven years, Americans have reached into their pockets and found nickels featuring this portrait of Jefferson, our Nation’s third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Reverse – Monticello

Jefferson designed Monticello himself, and construction began in 1768 when he was 25 years old. It was completed in 1823 when the former President and patriot was in his eightieth year. A skilled horticulturalist, Jefferson also planned the smallest details of the landscaping at Monticello.

Accompanying Schlag’s classic portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the obverse, the vision of Monticello that graced the nickel’s reverse from 1938 to 2003 remained essentially unchanged since its debut.

Schlag made several changes to his original reverse design at the request of the Treasury Department, including the angle from which Monticello is viewed and the initial art-deco style of lettering. These modifications resulted in the depiction carried on the nickel from 1938 until 2004, when legislation calling for the redesign of the nickel resulted in the Westward Journey Nickel Series™.