Have you ever wondered what the little “FS” under Thomas Jefferson’s bust on some Jefferson Nickels is supposed to mean? It’s something a lot of folks – especially newbie collectors or those unfamiliar with Jefferson Nickels – ask about in their course of studying. Some people believe the FS is some type of mint mark, but there was never any United States Mint facility that operated using FS as its mintmark.
Others think it may have something to do with the FS designation that PCGS uses in grading Jefferson Nickels. But “FS” in the grading sense refers to Full Steps details seen near the base of Monticello on the reverse of some well-struck Jefferson Nickels and has nothing to do with the presence of the FS letters that appear under the bust of Jefferson on some nickels.
So, why does FS appear on Jefferson Nickels, and what is the significance of these two letters?
As the Buffalo Nickel series began winding down in late 1930s, the United States government opened a contest to find a new design for the five-cent coin. The winning entry was provided by Felix Schlag, a German-born sculptor who studied his craft at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and moved to the United States in 1929. His obverse design of a left-facing bust of Jefferson and reverse profile of Jefferson’s Virginia home known as Monticello was chosen by Director of the United States Mint Nellie Tayloe Ross.
While Schlag won the prize of $1,000, awarded for the winning design to be placed on the nickel, modifications were made to his submission. Namely, changes came to his depiction of Monticello, which was presented in right-facing three-quarters view on Schlag’s original submission for the reverse of the coin. This was significantly altered to show the stately mansion in front-facing view, offering an elevation view perhaps more akin to an architectural concept rendering of the famous Charlottesville landmark.
Schlag went on to achieve ever-greater fame in United States artistic circles, including several commissions for artwork and other installations at schools and post offices around the nation. Living until the age of 82 in 1974, Schlag had the opportunity to see his initials FS placed on the obverse of the Jefferson Nickel in 1966.
Many Jefferson Nickels specialists regard the placement of Schlag’s FS initials as constituting a new subtype for the series. This is recognized by some type set collections that accommodate at least two spaces for Jefferson Nickels of the 20th century, with a spot for non-FS Jefferson Nickels (those minted from 1938 through 1965) and issues containing Schlag’s FS beginning in 1966.
While the Jefferson Nickel continues today in name, the series no longer carries its original obverse design as furnished for the coin by Schlag. In 2004, the Jefferson Nickel became the canvas for a variety of changing obverse and reverse designs honoring the bicentennial of the cross-country expedition by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart hundreds of thousands of square miles of land acquired in 1803 under the Louisiana Purchase on President Jefferson’s watch. The nickel’s obverse motif of Jefferson changed in 2005 and again 2006 during the course of the three-year commemorative series that wrapped in the latter year. Beginning in 2006, a permanent, forward-facing perspective of Jefferson as imagined by designer Jamie Franki was placed on the coin and is married with a refined likeness of Monticello on the reverse.
- Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of US and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
- “Felix Schlag Memorial Committee.” Michigan Coin Club. 2011. Retrieved May 24, 2021 via Wayback Machine
- Opitz, Glenn B. Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers. Apollo Book, 1986.