Friday, November 09, 2007

Hobo Nickels

Money may be the root of all evil, but what is the root of money? It exists in a strange gray zone between reality and illusion; the definitive token of worth, it is intrinsicall y worthless. Unraveling the dizzyingly complex mechanics of money is not easy; indeed, like a car or a computer, as long as it continues to work properly, most people feel no need to even try. I certainly never had—until recently, that is, when a friend introduced me to an obscure little piece of Americana called the Hobo Nickel. What started as a glancing interest in a modest, oddball collectible ended up provoking profoundly tangled questions about what money is and how it functions. Now I fear I will never be able to look at my pocket change in the same way again.

First minted between 1913 and 1938, the "Buffalo" or "Indian Head" nickel was designed by James E. Fraser, a former assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The coin's obverse, or "heads," side featured a Native American profile that was said to be a composite of three individuals from three different tribes—an Ogalala named Iron Trail, a Northern Cheyenne known as Two Moons, and Big Tree, a Seneca that had a brief career in 1920s silent movies. The reverse side of the coin was an image of a bison named Black Diamond, who then lived in New York's Central Park Zoo.

The coin was relatively plentiful—over 1.2 billion were minted during the 25 years of its run. However, a small number of them were adapted by the nation's then-significant population of itinerant workers, both as a mode of craft and a kind of parallel currency. (During the Depression as many as one out of every five able-bodied individuals was idle; thousands took to riding the rails in search of temporary work as a way of life.) Often using little more than a pen-knife, many of these drifters pain-stakingly altered the extremely hard copper-nickel alloy, transforming the Indian's head into profile portraits of friends and loved ones (both male and female), of other hobos, or of themselves. Rare examples also feature alterations of the "buffalo," typically into donkeys or elephants. These "Hobo Nickels" were a way for the vagabonds to increase the value of the coin so that it brought a more advantageous exchange when used to barter for food and drink, or for lodging or transportation.

1 comment:

Admiral Burns said...

It is interesting that you are showing this now. On Friday, I was called a "son-of-a-bitch" in open court by a client who is an honest to God hobo. I told him I thought he would get time served (87 days) in the county jail. The Judege decided to give him 12 to 36 months in the DOC. That means he will get out in less than 6 months, but he was still very pissed.
Anyway, after court, I came back to the office and googled "Hobo." I found some pretty interesting stuff. Some of it even lead back to the Beats, a sub-culture and literary genre I have always been interested in.