Hobo nickels, a growing art form, ‘like meditation’ for carvers

By Jesse Robitaille

This is the first story in a two-part series exploring ‘hobo nickels,’ a generic term for artistically altered coins resembling bas-relief sculptures.

A burgeoning art form that has steadily gained momentum since the early 1980s, carving hobo nickels “feels like meditation” to one Canadian producer.

Because they are individually carved, hobo nickels – essentially bas-relief sculptures – are all unique works of art, something that appeals to collectors and carvers alike. While there’s no Canadian club focusing solely on hobo nickels – a generic term encompassing artistically altered coins – the U.S.-based Original Hobo Nickel Society (OHNS) is coming up on its 30th anniversary in 2022. It has about 450 active members, dozens of which are from Canada.

“Hobo nickels did originate in the U.S. because the coin is an American coin,” said OHNS President Caroline Bastable, of the “Buffalo” five-cent coin (also known as the “Indian Head” nickel) issued by the U.S. Mint in 1913.

As one might expect, the coin’s obverse depicts the head of an indigenous American while the reverse features a buffalo; however, the history of coin carving dates back almost half a century to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

That same decade, artists in the United States began producing “potty dollars” primarily from that country’s “Liberty” trade dollars using similar carving techniques. The seated figure representing Liberty on the obverse was often altered to show her sitting – in the nude – on a chamber pot rather than the usual bales of cotton and surrounding wheat.

Soon after the Buffalo nickel was issued in the United States, “satirical” medals were produced by medallists in England and offered “humorous or scathing criticisms of events during the war,” according to a 2017 article, “Medallic Remembrances of World War I,” published by the American Numismatic Association.

While hobo nickels owe their name to the hoboes – a term that has since fallen out of favour – who made them, other examples were also made by First World War soldiers and machinists.

“The buffalo nickel was the primary coin that was carved, but there are a small number of carvings on other U.S. coins,” said Bastable, who’s also at the helm of the Love Token Society, another U.S.-based club focusing on altered coins with a love theme.

With a master’s degree in art education, she became interested in hobo nickels, love tokens and other artistically altered coins after working with her former husband – a coin dealer – for more than a decade.

“I spend a lot of of time researching and writing about coin arts and vintage numismatic ephemera,” said Bastable, who’s also a hobo nickel carver with about 50 carvings to her name. “My carving always seems to take a backseat to other obligations.”

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