The Canadian nickel has a long and exciting history. Though the country has had a five-cent denomination since 1858, it hasn’t always been made out of pure nickel. While our circulation coins are now made in Canada, they were produced in England for much of this country’s history.
Early History of the Five-Cent Coin
Canada is currently divided up into ten provinces and three territories, but in the mid 19th century, the entire country was a colonial province of Britain. In 1858, England’s Royal Mint rolled out new coins explicitly designed for the Province of Canada. The five-cent piece was included in the new monetary system from the beginning. At that time, its design mimicked that of the American coin of the same denomination. Its size also reflected its value. As half of a ten-cent coin, the five-cent coin was tiny. It was also made of sterling silver.
England continued to produce Canada’s coins at either the Royal Mint or the Birmingham Heaton Mint — denoted with an H mint mark — until 1908. When the Royal Mint opened a branch in Ottawa in 1908, Canada began producing all of its own coins, except dimes struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1968. The five-cent coin, known then as the “fish scale,” remained unchanged in size, shape or content until 1922.
The Birth of the Nickel
As silver prices rose, Canada sought to reduce the cost of the five-cent coin. Maintaining its value with the increased cost was problematic, but its role in the economy was too significant to get rid of the coin altogether. The Ottawa mint’s first move was to make the piece out of a lower-quality silver in 1920, but, just two years later, the mint made a more significant change. On January 3, 1922, the Canadian nickel was born. Governor General Julian Byng struck the first coin that would fully replace the silver five-cent piece.
In the beginning, the nickel was made out of pure nickel metal. It was larger than the “fish scale” and modelled again after the American nickel. However, in the U.S., the coin was comprised of 25% nickel and 75% copper. Since Canada used so much nickel in producing coins, it became the metal’s largest producer. It is also interesting to note that nickel is ferrous, which means that these pieces were all highly magnetic!
The Changing Face of the Nickel
During the Second World War and the Korean War, Canada diverted most of the nickel to armour production, which led to the use of alloys for the five-cent piece. In the early years, nickels were minted using 88% copper and 12% zinc, an alloy known as tombac. From 1944 to 1945 and 1951 to 1954, the Canadian nickel was made from double-plated steel. The first plate was nickel, and the second was chromium. If you’ve ever seen one of these coins, you might notice that the edges are dull or rusted. These pieces were plated before being struck, which meant the edges ended up exposed.
At the end of both wars, the Royal Canadian Mint resumed its production of pure nickel coins until 1982. This is when the Mint adopted the nickel-copper alloy used in the U.S. Ironically, this change meant that the nickel had less of that metal in it than any other Canadian coin in production!
The country made another switch in 2000, this time to nickel-plated steel. Instead of plating these coins before striking them, they are now plated afterward. This makes the coins more durable, since the edges are also plated.
The Shape of the Nickel
The nickel was not always a smooth, round coin. In fact, for many years, it was dodecagonal or 12-sided. Presumably, Canada adopted this unique shape to distinguish the five-cent piece from the one-cent piece once the nickel tarnished in circulation. Five-cent coins made from nickel, steel or tombac all had this 12-sided shape from 1942 until 1963.
The Place To Find Royal Canadian Mint Coins
The history of Canadian coins offers a fascinating look at our country’s heritage. Colonial Acres is the place to go to discover your own piece of Canadian coin history, including our legacy and commemorative five-cent coins. Check out our selection of historic coins today!