In the early part of 1939, the mint changed the reverse design of the Jefferson Nickel by strengthening the steps of Monticello. As a result, the Jefferson Nickels generated from each mint (P-D-S) in 1939 produced examples with the original step design from 1938 and the new design, which was designated the Reverse of 1940. Identifying the differences between the Reverse of 1938 vs the Reverse of 1940 is a problematic for many Jefferson Nickel collectors. The purpose of this article is to both describe and show the key differences in the two reverse designs so that the readers can understand and correctly apply the knowledge.
The Reverse of 1938 is often described as having "wavy" steps. A description that seems vague until you actually view a Jefferson Nickel with a reverse of 1938. In essence, the steps do not appear to have the same thickness and the inevitable presence of "bridges" even in Full Step examples exacerbates the effect. In addition, the steps do not have a defined start and end making some steps appear longer than others.
The design change in 1939 corrected the striking problems. The Reverse of 1940 displays a vertical indentation on both sides of the steps which serves as a consistent start and end to the steps. This is probably the easiest feature of the new design to both see and use to attribute the correct reverse. Another change was that the top step was thickened in an attempt to represent the porch rather than an actual step. Lastly, the steps are even, distinct, and well defined and no longer appear wavy.
The photo below shows 3 different photos of each Reverse design in order to clearly illustrate the differences between the two reverses. Please note that the top photo of the Reverse of 38 is actually considered full steps while the other two photos are of non full step coins. All of the coins with the reverse of 1940 are full step coins.
Reverse of 1938 vs Reverse of 1940
Some might argue that it is not necessary to have the knowledge to make such attributions since the TPG's will make them for you. And while that theory may be correct for new submissions, consider the following two factors. First, the TPG's can and to make mistakes. Second, the TPG's did not recognize the difference between the two reverses during the early years of their existence. The result is that there are many 1939 Jefferson Nickels out there in early generation slabs with no reverse attribution at all on the TPG label. Examine the three photos below. The first two show newer generation slabs from both PCGS & NGC with the proper Reverse attribution on the label. The last is an old NGC no-line fattie holder (generation 5 circa 1992-1995). Please note that there is no designation for either reverse on the slab. But after reading this article, and viewing the two coins above it, even a casual glance should give you the answer.
Since the 1939-D is essentially the recognized key date for the Jefferson series, understanding the differences between the two reverses is extremely important. Technically, the 1950-D has the lowest mintage but BU rolls were hoarded, and the issue actually very common in mint state condition. It is also important to consider that distribution of which reverses were used by each mint vary greatly. The Philadelphia mint generated a whopping 120 million nickels in 1939 but only about 10% (12 million) were with the reverse of 1938. Of those, only 1 in 400 had full steps leaving only about 30 thousand.
The Denver mint only produced 3.5 million nickels, which is the lowest mintage behind the aforementioned 1950-D. Additionally, only 25% of those were minted with the reverse of 1938 yielding 875 thousand 1939-D Jefferson Nickels with a Reverse of 1938. Finding a 1939-D in premium gem is difficult (see photo below), but finding a full step example is rare due to the fact that only about 1 of 150 had full steps taking the starting population down to 5,800 coins.
The mintage in San Francisco was 6.6 million and the reverse usage was almost 50/50 with the Reverse of 1938 having a slight advantage. Finding a full step Reverse of 1938 is also easier for the S mint Jeffersons at 1 in 100 leaving us with 33,000 coins. Given that 10% of the 1939-S Reverse of 1940 have full steps, one would think that finding one would be rather easy since we started with 330,000 coins. As of December 2011, the total NGC/PCGS population of the 1939-S Reverse of 40 MS65 FS is 48/17. Compare that to the total population of the 1939-S Reverse of 38 MS65 FS is 51/17. The populations are almost identical despite the fact that the Reverse of 40 had 10X as many coins to start.
I have been an avid collector of Jefferson Nickels for almost a decade. The only 1939 issue that I have ever had trouble finding an attractive example in gem state is the 1939-S Reverse of 1940. Consider that there are only 177 (12/2011) MS65 or better 1939-S Reverse of 40 coins graded by both NGC & PCGS and that includes both full step and non full step examples. To give an idea of the rarity of the 1939-S Rev of 40, the current populations (12/2011) of the 1939-D Rev of 38 MS67 and 1939-S Rev of 38 MS67 are 322/0 and 104/0 respectively for non full step examples. I submit that real key date of the Jefferson Nickel series is the 1939-S Reverse of 1940.
In summary, there are three key differences between the Reverse of 1938 vs Reverse of 1940:
- Wavy Steps for 1938 vs Well Defined Steps for 1940
- A vertical indentation to start & end the steps on the Reverse of 1940
- The Reverse of 1940 has a thicker top step
It is important to know these differences because there are many certified 1939 Jefferson Nickels in TPG holders that are not properly attributed on the label. Due to the distribution of the reverse design mintages, the reverse design can significantly affect the price of the coin. It is my sincere hope that anyone who reads this article will gain the requisite knowledge needed to understand the complexities of the 1939 Jefferson Nickels.