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A grayish-white metal of considerable luster, very malleable and ductile, occurring very generally in combination with arsenic, and found also in meteoric stones. It is used in coloring glass, and in various alloys, as in German silver. Nickel silver, an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc, usually called German silver. — Webster, 1882

D.H. Loftus has out in a new cash register. It is all nickel and a very handsome piece of furniture. It is now on duty and registers the amount of every purchase. – De Smet News & Leader, October 23, 1891

That skinflint, Mr. Thompson, had some nerve when he offered Almanzo Wilder a nickel reward after Almanzo found the old geezer’s pocketbook full of cash and returned it to him intact. That story in Farmer Boy (Chapter 28, “Mr. Thompson’s Pocketbook”) has Mr. Paddock standing up for honest young Almanzo (don’t you love Almanzo’s reply to the old miser?) and insisting that Almanzo is rewarded two hundred whole dollars, which sets up the story that Mr. Paddock wants Almanzo as an apprentice, Almanzo tells Father he wants to be a farmer and buy a colt, and Father gives Starlight to Almanzo. But what about that lonely nickel coin?

The nickel coin (which is 3/4 copper and 1/4 nickel) as a five-cent piece was minted from June 1866 to 1882, so its first year of production was the same year the pocketbook story is set in Farmer Boy. There was also a nickel and copper three-cent piece minted under the same Act of Congress (March 1865). The five-cent piece replaced fractional scrip (paper money worth five cents) and the half-dime, which was a silver coin that cost much more to manufacture. The five-cent coin is shown above. The front has a circle of 13 stars with a large center “5” with “cents” at the bottom and the words “United States of America” around the top. The back has a shield with the words “In God we Trust” around the top, and the year of issue at the bottom.

I doubt it, but maybe Mr. Thompson was just trying to give Almanzo a newly-minted coin that he hadn’t seen before?

The New Five Cent Coin. The act which has passed the Senate and House of Representatives to authorize the coinage of five cent pieces “provides that the new five-cent piece shall be composed of copper and nickel, not exceeding twenty-five per cent of nickel.” This coin is to be a legal tender to the amount of one dollar, and redeemed when presented in sums not less than one hundred dollars. It is proposed to make this coin exactly five grammes, or 77 16/100 grains in weight. Three of the coins will weigh one-half of an ounce, and will be convenient in the pocket for a postage weight. The law also prohibits the issue of fractional notes less than ten cents after the passage of this act. The color and appearance of this coin will be similar to the three cent coin, authorized by the act of March 3, 1865. –Trenton State Gazette (Trenton, New Jersey), May 22, 1866, page 3.

Earlier in Farmer Boy (see Chapter 16, “Independence Day”), Almanzo’s cousin Frank has a nickel and plans to buy lemonade with it. According to area newspapers, the five-cent coin was first produced in late June 1866, so if Frank had one of the new coins, that might have been of interest on July 4th as much as the lemonade. It’s likely that Laura and Rose didn’t know the coin’s history at the time they were working on Farmer Boy. In Chapter 26, “Christmas”), Almanzo finds a nickel’s worth of horehound candy in his Christmas stocking.

A nickel coin is mentioned in By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 3, “Riding in the Cars”) when Ma counts out ten cents (a nickel and five pennies) to buy a box of candy from the butcher boy during the 7-mile train ride from Walnut Grove to Tracy. In the introduction to The First Four Years, Roger Lea MacBride wrote that the FFY manuscript had been written on school tablets costing a nickel.

The metal, nickel, was classified as an element (Ni) in 1751; it has a silver sheen with a slightly gold tint. In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (see Chapter 5, “Working in Town”), Laura notices the nickel parts of the sewing machine at Mrs. White’s.

The German-silver thimble that Laura and Carrie buy as a Christmas present for Ma in Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 19, “The Whirl of Gaiety”) was made of nickel silver, an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. German silver usually contained 60% copper, 20% nickel, and 20% zinc. It was named for its silvery appearance, but contains no elemental silver.


nickel (LTP 5)
     nickel, coin ( FB 16, 21, 26, 28; SSL 3; LTP 16; FFY intro)
     German-silver (LTP 19) – Nickel silver