Hobo Nickel Carving in Ancient Theme 'Emperor' by Bill (Billzach) Jameson
Although not the first people to carve or alter a coin for artistic purposes, the Hobo Nickel carver has certainly been the most enduring and the Hobo Nickel remains a uniquely American phenomenon. When the buffalo nickel was first issued in 1913 the hobo nickel soon followed. The buffalo nickel was a higher relief coin with an Indian head that filled much of the obverse making the coin an ideal canvas for those with a mind to carve into a coin. Soon people were altering the head to depict men in bowler hats, different ethnic types, soldiers, or people they knew or saw in their daily lives.
The golden age of the Hobo Nickel seems to have been roughly between 1913 and 1940. During the depression in America many craftsmen and laborers found themselves without work. It is unknown who first decided to carve on a nickel but the practice spread. The idea seemed to be that these carved nickels might have been offered in trade or sold as curios for badly needed money.
The quality varied and most of the early carvers are unknown. We only know the coins they left behind and they are given nicknames which refer to the subject, style, or some feature on the coins such as Dapper, Smoothie, Big Nose, Peanut Ear or Beady Eye. One of the few known early nickel carvers was George Washington "Bo" Hughes who started carving nickels in the 30's and produced them for decades. He is often sited as the first real known master of the craft of nickel carving. Early hobo nickels are rare, highly desirable, and frequently faked collectors items.
Today there is a new generation of Nickel Carvers who have been inspired by the carvers of the past, some of whom have raised the craft to a true art form. As always these carvings vary in quality from roughly etched basic alterations to the existing portrait to intricate, imaginative works that completely transform the coin to something all together different. One might call it a Hobo Nickel renaissance and these modern original works from certain carvers are highly sought after.
The coin above is a modern work by master carver Bill Jameson. With a classic feel and a unique refined style he stands out as one of the more talented and creative carvers working today. A prolific artist he has produced hundreds of carved nickels in a wide variety of themes often paying homage to the classic hobo nickel subjects and styles. Because of the skill that goes into these carvings and the attractive, recognizable style of his work, Bills carved nickels are some of the more outstanding examples of modern hobo nickel carvings.