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More Than A Nickel's Worth: A History of Hobo Nickels and Their Role In American Numismatics


Second Place Winner PCGS Essay Contest 2000.

They don't have the attractive glitz of a Commemorative Gold or the intriguing antiquity of a Colonial coin. They are not struck off any mint of the U.S. Treasury, and yet are arguably more deeply rooted in Americana culture than any other coin. These pieces are "hobo nickels," so-called because they were born out of the creatively economical, wandering hobos of the early part of the twentieth century. Through clever alteration of the classic Buffalo nickel, hobo nickels were individually engraved with the design of a hobo's profile (or some other character) on the obverse side (the side with the Indian), and an animal image or some other shape on the reverse side (where the American bison stood). Hobo nickels, once common during the Depression era, are now a numismatic rarity, making them one of the most sought-after coin varieties.

While some coins popular in the numismatist realm are little more than glittering pieces of metal with uniform engravings on each side, hobo nickels boast an unusual quality that contributes to their uniqueness. They are born of free thinking, free-spirited human beings rather than minted in uniform multitudes by a passionless machine. In every infinitesimal scratch, every imperceptible nuance, every metallic wisp of hair or gleaming thread of a hobo's cap, is a tiny piece of an individual's character and personal creativity, sealed into the hobo nickel forever.

Hobo nickels are about as varied as the hobos who fashioned them. A typical hobo nickel will bear the profiled face of a hobo on one side and some animal on the other side. The Indian head could be turned into any human (or in some cases, inhuman) image, including friends, family members, a self-portrait, a clown, and even ethnic caricatures. The Buffalo was carved to resemble a donkey, elephant, and sometimes a wandering man with a pack on his back. High-quality hobo nickels mandated fastidious craftsmanship, meticulous attention to detail, and a sizable portion of time, since a single hobo nickel could take as much as 100 hours to complete. (That’s a huge number of hours for such a small surface area!) Chisels, knives, hammers, and virtually any other object fit for shaping and etching metal were used in the process.

The Buffalo nickel itself debuted in 1913, and several years later its popular cousin – hobo nickel - was born. The history of hobo nickels begins several years after 1913. The actual inventor of the hobo nickel is unknown, but he or she almost certainly never envisioned his carved buffalo nickel as becoming the object d'art it has grown to be.

Altering coins to bear different images was a longstanding practice in the United States then. A favorite American fad of the pre-Civil War days of the Nineteenth Century was carving "love tokens" out of coins. With a few careful chisels, etches, and engravings, lovers could romanticize their money by putting ornate, decorative designs with personal messages to give away to somebody they cared about. In Napoleonic Frace, civilians would often manipulate the image of the fiery French dictator whose image was engraved on the coins to create a unique caricature of Napoleon himself.

Time went by in America, and hobo nickels made occasional surprise appearances in a pocket or cash register. As the upbeat, forward-moving Twenties gave way to the gloom and broken morale of the Great Depression, hobo nickels evolved into the next phase of their history.

The sudden scarcity of jobs during that time hit the country like a bullet, but it infused new life into hobo nickel production. Very simply, more hobos on the streets equaled more people involved in the nickels' creation. The Buffalo nickel, still widely in circulation during the 1930s, was an ideal coin from which one could fashion a token. The large profile of the Indian on one side, and the classic image of the very wide American bison that complemented it on the reverse side provided an adequately sized "canvas" for the wandering hobo artist to use. Another more practical explanation for the use of Buffalo nickels was simple economics: nickels were low in value and therefore dispensable and generally plentiful. Ironically enough, the nickel (a copper-nickel alloy) is the hardest U.S. coin in circulation.

Homeless people and other craftsmen managed to escape the gray, depressing shades of the Depression by metamorphosing a simple buffalo nickel into a glittering work of circular art, good for a meal or serenity and shelter for a night. (These nickels were traded for a small favor or sold.) The public perception of hobos is usually ridden with negativities, though in actuality hobos did not associate themselves with "bums" or "tramps" – two names that to most Americans are synonymous with "hobo". True hobos were nomadic and free-spirited (giving them the nickname "knights of the road"), but adhered to an informal code of hobo ethics, worked hard when work was available, and tried to stay away from trouble.

To live as a hobo, then and now, is to live anonymously, but one hobo in particular slipped away from the pack, and because of his nickel carvings, rose to prominence among hobo nickel creators. George Washington "Bo" Hughes, one of numismatics' greatest characters, was born just before the dawn of the twentieth century in the Deep South. Discontented with his life, Bo left his 11 siblings one day, walked through the door of his home, and crossed the threshold into the wide-open world of nomadic freedom. At the time, Bo was only in his early teens, still years from manhood. Unbeknownst to him, the swift current of life on the road would carry him to an unexpected yet productive career as a nickel craftsman.

Bo wandered to a hobo village (commonly called a "jungle"), where he encountered a fellow hobo who would change his life forever, a man known simply as Bert.

Bert was adept at making crafts. He took young Bo under his wing, made him an informal apprentice, and carefully taught Bo how to carve realistic images into nickels. It was a trade that would soon grow from a mere hobby to a passion of Bo's.

With a knife or chisel clenched confidently in one hand, Bo threw himself into perfecting his hobo nickels, and eventually became quite skilled at carving them. Bo was also innovative and progressive in his work, as he experimented with new techniques and design ideas.

The years drifted by, and as the Depression sunk in – which coincided with the peak of hobo nickel carving – Bo also reach his zenith. As President Roosevelt churned our various New Deal programs throughout the 30s, the nimble, talented hands of Bo Hughes churned out a plethora of hobo nickels.

Sadly, Bo's life became a classic example of tragic irony: the same economic depression that spurred on a new wave of hobo nickel designers and propelled the career of the greatest nickel creator in the coin's history helped lead Bo's life as a craftsman to its end. Life as a hobo took its toll: the rigorous manual labor Bo undertook to survive during the money-tight, poverty-ridden 30s rendered his hands stiff and permanently damaged. Frequent beatings by ruthless detectives prowling railroads (where many hobos resided) in search of freeloaders and thieves compounded Bo's dexterity impairment.

Nevertheless, devoted to his craft, Bo worked through the pain and frustrating impediments throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, but hit another wall in 1957. While working on a nickel, his chisel suddenly slipped and struck his hand. The injury forced the once-great hobo nickel engraver to resort to haphazard punching method to chisel out the desired image. The 1957 incident was the final blow. Bo continued his work, but with less frequency and diminished quality, and as America moved into the post-war era hobo nickels became a thing of the past. The glory days of hobo nickels were, sadly, left behind. In addition, the U.S. Mint ceased striking Buffalo nickels in 1938, which caused a drop in circulation of that variety.

In 1982, Bo passed away without any fanfare from coin enthusiasts. What became of him in his final years is something of a mystery. Bo was last seen heading back down South in search of employment, but sort of lost touch with the world after that. Nevertheless, the long, colorful life of George Washington Bo Hughes is immortalized in the book The Hobo Nickel by Del Romines.

Today, hobo nickels are in high demand among numismatists. The unequaled detail and fine craftsmanship that make these nickels distinct keep their appeal to collectors alive and well. Exactly how eager are some collectors to obtain these scarce coins? Hobo nickels have sold for as much as $5000, though most warrant only $100 to $300 at auctions and numismatist conventions. But collectors beware: modern-day imitations, known as "neo-bos," exist. Numismatists should be wary of original hobo nickel knock-offs, which may have the same amount of talent invested in them, but usually don’t have the same charm that generations of history and authenticity bring. Some modern reproductions are even produced by machine or with power tools, making them little more appealing than plain Jefferson nickels.

There are exceptions, however. Some present-day craftsmen have rediscovered the appeal of the practice. Sam Alfano has "carved" out a name for himself by leading a new generation of hobo nickel designers. Though he doesn't try to pass off his works as true hobo nickels from yesteryear, they often match the quality of the originals. The dexterous intricacy of an Alfano hobo nickel rivals even the best of the nickels made during the peak of hobo nickels' popularity. Alfano's talent and innovation (his coins feature hiking hobos, elf-like hobos, yarmulke-capped Jews, women, and even fish) have given him the prestigious reputation of being a modern Bo Hughes.

One group has dedicated himself to preserving the popularity and memory of hobo nickels, too. The Original Hobo Nickel Society is comprised of hobo nickel enthusiasts. As a tribute to Bo Hughes, their tri-annual newsletter is titled "Bo Tales." The Society also holds an annual hobo nickel convention.

The modern hobo nickel artists and the Original Hobo Nickel Society are dedicated to both memorializing the unnoticed creativity of the many forgotten knights of the road, and to sustaining the popularity of the hobo nickel as a collector's item and miniature, uniquely American work of folk art.

In the eyes of the U.S. Treasury Department, hobo nickels are, officially, only former legal tender mutilated beyond recognition and, therefore, worth absolutely nothing. But to numismatists everywhere, these coins are more special than gold. Chances are that one will never encounter a hobo nickel unless actively searching for one. Never commonplace even in their heyday, authentic hobo nickels are now rarer than they ever have been. Like the hobos who spawned them, these nickels drift around the country, inconspicuous and uncommon, occasionally making an appearance. But the grinning face of the hobo's profile on the nickel serves as a permanent reminder that hobo nickels will be in existence for decades to come, and their long-since forgotten carvers seem to speak through those grinning faces one silent proclamation: "This coin is my legacy." The hobo nickel truly is a numismatic treasure.

Tokens and Medals Miscellaneous Buffalo Nickels (1913-1938)