America’s Forgotten “Hobo Nickels”

Hobo Nickels, photo courtesy of Danthoms
Hobo Nickels, photo courtesy of Danthoms

The American Great Depression serves as the defining bar for economic hardship and financial calamity. Between 1929 and 1932 industrial production dropped by nearly 45% and unemployment in certain US cities reached astronautical numbers: In Cleveland, the unemployment rate climbed to 50%, while neighboring Toledo, Ohio, reached an unprecedented 80% unemployment rate.

The mass forced exodus of millions of Americans from the workforce created billions of collective lost manhours, where destitute and defeated men were left with zero outlet for energy and income.

With little to do, many found themselves roaming from town to town in search of meager wages, often little more than a warm bowl of soup.  These migrant workers became known as “hobos” and they differed from another group of wandering men from this time period who called “tramps”. Whereas a hobo was a traveling man in search of work, tramps were considered vagrants who lacked any desire to work or better themselves.  Both tramps and hobos were often the subject of extreme physical abuse and even beatings; especially when they were discovered hitching an illegal ride on a passing train.

Despite the blackmark many of these men carried with them in their wanderings, the hours of downtime provided an opportunity for many of them to perfect an unusual form of art: re-sculpting the few American coins they came across.

The coin of choice for these unemployed street artists was the Buffalo nickel, introduced in 1913.  The large Native American head presented opportunity for radical alterations to the coin, while the size, thickness and relative softness of the nickel made it ideal for carving in finer detail compared to other coins.  The nickel was also favored by the destitute men because of its relatively low value compared to the Morgan dollars and the Columbian half dollar.

The practice of re-sculpting US coins dates back to the 1800s when it was all the irreverent rage to re-sculpt a seated Lady Liberty to appear as though she was seated on a chamber pot; however, the practice reached its zenith during the darkest days of the Great Depression.

With days and sometimes weeks passing without any work, the bored and lonely men would often pass the time by perfecting new designs unto the Buffalo Nickel.

These re-sculpted Buffalo Nickels became known as hobo nickels and based upon their complexity, beauty and artistic appeal, would often be accepted from the bearer at an increased value.

Though the practice fell out of popularity at the outbreak of World War II, it continued as a subculture through the 1950s and into the 1970s, when it finally fell out of mainstream altogether — largely because by this time Buffalo Nickels had nearly disappeared from circulation.

Though seen by some as nothing more than vandalism, others remember “Hobo Nickels” as a good and exciting thing; offering a short reprieve from the random doldrum of every day life.

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