On today’s date in 1921, a proclamation published in the Royal Mint’s annual report described the design of Canada’s forthcoming five-cent coin, which would be composed of nickel.
Because of the rising price of silver, in 1920, Canadian coinage was debased from sterling silver (.925 fineness) to .800 fineness with the remaining 20 per cent composed of copper. From about 1911 until 1921, Canada’s five-cent coin had a weight of 1.17 grams and a 15.5-mm diameter.
According to the 56th edition of the Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Coins (published in 2002), about 2.5 million 1921-dated five-cent coins were struck in .800 silver before the Mint decided to switch to a pure nickel coin; however, most of these silver pieces were melted after the Mint authorized the nickel coin in May 1921.
It’s estimated only about 400 1921 silver five-cent coins survived; today, these surviving silver coins – dubbed “The Prince of Canadian Coins” – are among the rarest and most valuable Canadian circulation coins. What’s believed to be the finest-known specimen (in Professional Coin Grading Service Mint State-67) realized $115,000 USD (not including taxes or buyer’s premium) in Heritage Auction’s 2010 January Signature World Coin Auction #3008.
“The mintage for this issue exceeded 2.5 million coins. However, that figure does not explain the rarity,” reads the auction catalogue. “After legislation was passed to create a new 5 Cents piece of a copper and nickel composition, orders were issued to melt the older 5 Cents silver coins, with more than 3 million pieces melted, including nearly the entire 1921 mintage.”
“Those that escaped the melting pot included some that entered circulation and others that collectors must have preserved, as examples are known in grades ranging from VG [Very Good] to Superb Gem.”
The changeover to a pure nickel coin was to be effective Jan. 2, 1922.
In 1922, silver was removed entirely from Canada’s five-cent coin. Because Canada was the world’s largest nickel producer, it was decided the new Canadian five-cent coin would be made of pure nickel. These new five-cent coins weighed 4.54 grams and had a 21.21-mm diameter.
The five-cent coin would keep this size and composition until 1942, when nickel – which was vital to the country’s armour production – was redirected to the war effort. Towards the end of 1942 and throughout 1943, Canada’s five-cent coins were minted in tombac, an alloy composed of 88 per cent copper and 12 per cent zinc.
In 1944-45 and again in 1951-54, coins were made of chrome-plated steel; however, after both the Second World War and Korean War, the coin’s composition was reverted to pure nickel. It would remain this way until 1982, when rising nickel prices spurred another changeover, this time to cupro-nickel (75 per cent copper and 25 per cent nickel).
The modern five-cent coin – produced by the Royal Canadian Mint at its Winnipeg facility – are minted in nickel-plated steel with a composition of 94.5 per cent steel; 3.5 per cent copper; and two per cent nickel plating. It has a weight of 3.9 grams and a 21.2-mm diameter.