U.S. nickels have been made from a mix of metals—nickel (75%) and copper (25%)—since 1866. The U.S. Mint is currently looking into ways to make the nickel less expensive to produce. But what if we go back to 1866 and explore what the nickel looked like then? What were early American five-cent pieces actually like?
The U.S. first minted a 5-cent coin in 1792. Congress called it a half-dime. (Technically it was a "half-disme," but see below for more on the spelling.) That coin was only briefly made, and had an odd design. Numismatists also disagree about whether it was even intended to circulate. The more common design looks like the image above—starting in 1794, the "flowing hair" half dime ruled, though it too went through a series of design changes in 1796 and 1800.
One of the strangest things about the half-dime was its lack of a numerical value statement. Nowhere on the observe or reverse does the coin say what it's worth. The designs were very similar to half-dollar and dollar coins, just much smaller. (This was typical for U.S. coins at the time; the 1790s-era dime also lacked an indication of value in cents.)
Fun fact: In the Coinage Act of 1792, the dime was referred to as the "disme," and that term is printed on the 1792 copper disme...er, dime.
THE PAPER NICKEL
The Civil War had a radical effect on U.S. currency, for various reasons (not least that half the country didn't recognize its value). In 1884, the U.S. issued and immediately recalled five-cent paper notes. The design was overseen by Spencer M. Clark, who supervised the Currency Bureau. Guess who's on the note? Yep, it's Spencer M. Clark. Congress promptly passed legislation preventing the depiction of living people on U.S. currency, as the Clark incident came just after Salmon P. Chase put himself on the dollar bill.
This five-cent note was accompanied by a couple of new coins: two- and three-cent pieces. These are worthy of mention here, but they're not nickels, so let's move on.
BIG NICKEL GETS ITS COIN
The aforementioned three-cent piece contained a mixture of nickel and copper, which excited industrials who controlled nickel production. Through good old-fashioned lobbying, Big Nickel interests managed to secure the 75% nickel/25% copper formula for a five-cent piece, and the rest is history.
The first true "nickel" appeared in 1866, and bore a shield design based on the previous two-cent piece. It was a very handsome coin, and it even said "5 CENTS" on the reverse! Good job, U.S. Mint.
For more on early U.S. currency: What the Original $1 Bill Looked Like; The First U.S.-Minted Penny Was Horrific; and Where Do U.S. Coin Names Come From? You might also enjoy this history of the nickel, or this beautifully-illustrated nickel story.