Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Elephant No. 275: Hobo Nickel

I ran across this technique a few days ago and decided to try it on a day when I might have a bit more time.

Hobo nickels are modified coins which have been altered to produce miniature bas-relief scenes or figures. The tradition dates back to at least the 1750s, when people produced "love tokens" by smoothing off the face of a silver coin, then recarving it with initials, messages, flowers, animals or scenes. In addition to love tokens, low-denomination coins were often reworked simply as a way to pass the time.

The term "hobo nickel" arose sometime after the introduction of the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel in 1913. The large Indian head and its relatively thick profile gave artists a large surface on which to work. By comparison, the head on the American Lincoln penny covers only one-sixth of the surface, whereas the head on the Indian Head nickel covers about five-sixths of the surface. Because nickels were low in value, highly portable, and offered a useful canvas, the art of carving them became particularly popular among hobos.

U.S. Indian Head/Buffalo nickel, 1913–1938
Source: http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.ca/2009/03/hobo-nickels.html

Almost as soon as the Indian Head nickel was introduced, people began altering them. Interestingly, the greatest quality and variety of styles in early (1913–1940) hobo nickels is found on coins with a 1913 date. In fact, more classic old hobo nickels were produced on 1913 nickels than on any other date before 1930. 

Hobo nickel on 1913 nickel by unknown engraver.
Source: http://www.cointalk.com/t75657/

During the 1930s, when many men took to wandering the country in search of work—as, yes, hobos—the art of hobo nickels expanded even further. Some of the best-known engravers of hobo nickels began their careers during this period, often continuing to produce them well into the late 1970s.

Recent hobo nickel engraved on buffalo side of nickel.
Source: http://www.armstrongengraving.com/hiking-hobo-nickel.html

Following the introduction of the Jefferson nickel in 1938, the Indian Head nickel gradually disappeared from circulation. By the end of the 1970s, they rarely turned up in pocket change, and many engravers either used worn coins, or bought them from coin dealers.

Today, a wide range of hobo nickels are still produced. Some are of very high quality, attesting to the skills of a professional engraver; the wide majority, however, are quickly produced and lack the detail and artistry of high-end works. Names to look for include George "Bo" Washington Hughes and Bertrain Wiegand for early hobo nickels; and John Dorusa, Frank Brazzell and Ron Landis for more modern versions.

"Short hat hobo"—recent hobo nickel by Sam Alfano.
Source: http://www.masterengraver.com/hobo_nickels.shtml

There is also a significant collectors' market for hobo nickels, and even a number of hobo nickel associations and societies, such as the Original Hobo Nickel Society. Modern, lower-quality hobo nickels are still available for a few dollars. Older and more artistic hobo nickels go for a hundred dollars or more. It is estimated that there may be 100,000 to 200,000 classic hobo nickels in existence, many of which are not yet in the hands of collectors. Interestingly, almost all modern hobo nickels (those created since 1980) are already in private and museum collections.

Although these types of coins are called "hobo nickels", this is actually a generic term, referring to any coin that has been defaced and re-engraved. Most of them are indeed five-cent pieces, but there are also many pennies, and even half-dollar and dollar coins that have been given this type of treatment. Nor is the practice limited to the United States, or even North America. Britain, France and South Africa have similar altered-coin traditions.

For today's elephant, I didn't have an Indian Head/Buffalo nickel, but I did have a Jefferson nickel, so I decided to use that. I've never actually tried engraving metal with my rotary tool, so this promised to be interesting.

To hold the nickel in place while I played with it, I used my pin vise. As you can see by how clean it is, it hardly ever gets used.

When I first looked at the Jefferson nickel, I couldn't really see an elephant in the image. Jefferson does have a long pigtail, however, so I focused on that as a potential trunk. To give myself some working lines, I sketched my design onto the surface with a permanent marker. Jefferson's pigtail became the trunk, and his jaw became the lower edge of the elephant's ear. The top of Jefferson's head and his hair had an interesting texture which I thought would be nice for the main part of the elephant's head.

I decided to use my actual Dremel for this, rather my generic rotary tool, because the Dremel is smaller and much easier for me to hold and manoeuvre. I used a pointy diamond bit to start with.

These were my first engraving marks. Feel free to laugh.

Turns out I'm completely clueless when it comes to engraving metal with a power tool. I usually carve stone material with my rotary tools, which is why I have a bunch of diamond bits. And nothing else. While diamond bits work well on stone, shell and glass, they're clearly useless on metal. I didn't realize that this was the problem until after I was finished.

I had no idea why the tool was bouncing off the coin and sliding across the surface. So I switched to a bunch of files, a dental pick and a scribe. I knew these would work on metal, because I've used them before on silver.

I scratched and poked at the design, then used the Dremel tool some more. The Dremel tool did work, but it wasn't as easy as I expected it to be, and it didn't give me the smooth results I expected.

I kept at it for about two hours in total, then decided it wasn't going to get any better. I did try to keep the words intact, but the tool had other ideas sometimes, so it wasn't as much like a traditional hobo nickel as I would have liked. To finish the piece, I polished just the elephant with an abrasive burr.

In the end, however, I wasn't all that disappointed. The final piece is actually quite pretty in real life, and has a rough sort of old-coin look that I like.

When I was first learning to spin yarn, the person teaching me tsaid about my first batch, "You should keep this, because you'll be able to achieve this effect again." I feel that way about this piece. Now that I know what I did wrong, I don't think I'll ever be able to make one like this again. And that's probably as it should be.

Elephant Lore of the Day
As most Americans know, the elephant is the symbol of the Republican Party, also known as the GOP, or "Grand Old Party". Similarly, the donkey is the symbol of the opposing Democratic Party.

The donkey came first. During Democrat Andrew Jackson's 1828 presidential campaign, he was called a "jackass" by his political opponents. Unfazed, Jackson decided to use images of the stubborn creature on his campaign posters. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast later used the Democratic donkey in his newspaper cartoons, making the symbol famous.

Nast was also responsible for the elephant's association with the Republican Party. In a 1874 cartoon published in Harper's Weekly, Nast drew a donkey wearing a lion's skin, terrorizing all the other animals in the zoo. One of the animals running away was an elephant, with the words "The Republican Vote" printed on its side. The elephant has been associated with the Republican Party ever since.

Today, Republicans say that the elephant is strong and dignified, while Democrats say that the donkey is clever and brave.

Political cartoon with Republican elephant and Democratic donkey,
Harper's Weekly, November 7, 1874.
Source: http://www.harpweek.com/09Cartoon/BrowseByDateCartoon.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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