Theories for the Origen of the Modified Steps
The basic facts about the coin.
The Reverse and Obverse designs match perfectly to
the standard designs for 1938.
The mintmark style is accurate for 1938 San
I place the Reverse in the early mid die state
(EMDS) and the Obverse in the mid die state (MDS), so I estimate
100,000 coins have been struck by the die up to this point.
The coin appears to be AU-58 with some slight rub on
the high points and with a patina consistent with long term storage
in an album.
There are no obvious die gouges, die scratches, or
other diagnostic markers present on either side.
Both ends of the steps show an enhanced design, with
many fine lines within 3 wider steps, heretofore unknown to the
Jefferson nickel or any other US coin design.
The central portion of the steps under pillars # 2
and # 3 appear to be unformed from the strike, which is consistent with the
known striking problems of the Jefferson nickel.
Theory for a post-mint enhancement.
The proliferation of modern hobo nickel carvers
in the last 15 years has led to the fact that a lot of coins
have been tooled.
Many of these carvers use high speed electric
equipment which can produce very intricate work.
Modern counterfeiting has seen a substantial
increase in quality as well as quantity.
But why leave the middle section of the steps
untouched? Perhaps because "perfect, full steps" would
have brought a lot of attention to it as an alteration.
The change in step style has been the subject of
intense search since the coins were produced in 1938-40.
Jefferson nickels have been hunted for high step
counts for the last 50+ years.
Collectors of the series routinely put a 7x
to 10x loupe on every coin they look at.
Such a design change would have readily been
seen and reported.
Why has it taken 79 years to surface?
Perhaps because only 1 was made and it was "lost" in an
In addition there has been a steady search for
varieties. It is hard to imagine that, if at least 100,000
coins were produced by this die that the design could have been
overlooked for so long.
Furthermore, how did those fine step lines
last 100,000 strikes without showing significant wear.
In order for these enhanced steps to have been
on the die originally, the engraver would probably have been
working with a hub, which was then hardened and used to make a
The working die would then have had the mintmark
placed on it, while it was still in a softened state. The die
was hardened and used to strike coins.
Why was the mintmark placed on the die prior to
it being used to strike coins, when it was a test die, rather
than a production die?
All dies were made in Philadelphia. Why would
Philadelphia be striking coins with an S mintmark, even if it
was a test die?
Would Philadelphia send a test die to San
Francisco to test a new die design? And if so, why?
It makes sense to conclude that someone has
tooled the steps on this one coin.
Theory for a mint modified
Bernard Nagengast has made the following observations.
The coin appears to be original, not altered or
If this was some sort of random die with a different
design, why San Francisco and not Philadelphia? Tom DeLorey
posits that it could have been accidentally sent to San Francisco.
It is documented that the first approved design,
after trial production, was modified. There are no known
examples of the first trial production, all examples apparently
being destroyed. Did a trial working die, with [this] step
design, survive with a fate as posited by Tom?
There were a number of submitted designs for the
Jefferson Nickel. At least two, those submitted by Henry Kreis
and Anthony DeFrancisci, had a reverse with 4 thick, straight steps
(that count includes the porch and base step). We know that
the mint discarded Schlag's submitted reverse and then apparently
screwed around with the other designs resulting in a composite of
several designs, giving no credit to the other designs. We
don't know how far the "screwing" process went as far as trial dies
and so on.
Historically speaking, anything is possible when it
comes to the US Mint! This could even be a hand modification
of a working die by someone with engraving expertise and idle time.
After all this was 1938, the height of the secondary depression of
1938-1939. With the low 1938 mintage, there could have been a
lot of idle time at the mints!
Tom DeLorey has made the following follow-up comments.
The Buffalo nickel was struck at Denver into April
of 1938, but the Jefferson nickel not until October at all three
Mints. They were released on Nov. 15th.
In the January, 1939 issue of The Numismatist
there is a comment from a member that the new nickels were hard to
come by on the west coast.
I remain open, but I think probability leans toward
post mint damage rather than a design modification.
Of course a second copy would add additional
information and maybe give us a smoking gun one way or the other.