Monique Kieran: Spare a thought for the nickel on the 100th anniversary of its conception

We tend not to carry much cash these days, and even less of it as change. Even before last year, we were more apt to charge ­parking to a credit card or pay for our ­morning caffeine fix through debit or an online account than to pull bills from our wallets or coins from our pockets.

The pandemic has made the exchange of legal tender and coins for goods even less common. Money has long been seen as filthy lucre and has long been known to harbour grime in reality. Studies showing that ­coronavirus can survive on surfaces for several days have made everyone even more reluctant to handle cash and coinage.

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But today, if you should find a nickel­ ­rattling around in the footwell of your car or at the bottom of your briefcase, pause for a moment. One hundred years ago, Parliament authorized its creation.

Yes, the Canadian five-cent coin’s ­conception became official on Feb. 14, 1921. A year later, the first actual Canadian nickel, patterned on its American counterpart and minted in Ottawa, entered circulation.

Canada had a five-cent coin before 1922, of course, but it wasn’t called a nickel. A five-cent piece had been introduced in Canada in 1858. That version was a small, thin coin, made of 92.5 per cent sterling silver. It was approximately 15 millimetres in diameter — half the size of the silver 10-cent coin in circulation at the time — and weighed 1.167 grams. Thanks to its size and colour, some people called it a “fish scale.”

The coin that replaced it was 21.21 millimetres across and weighed 4.54 grams. Those dimensions remained constant until the 1980s.

They were the only thing that was ­constant about the nickel.

In the beginning, the nickel was nickel. Because Canada was the world’s largest nickel producer, it was decided the coin would be made of pure nickel.

But the coin’s composition varied through the years. With wartime demand for the metal high, the “nickel” coin was switched to copper–zinc in 1942–’43. The alloy tarnished, and the die for the nickel was changed from round to 12-sided — presumably to help people distinguish tarnished ­nickels from dark-coloured pennies.

The coin was then changed to chrome-plated steel the ­following year, but the 12-sided shape remained until 1963.

After the war, the nickel once again became almost pure nickel. But in 1951, ­Canada’s involvement in the Korean War saw nickel metal supplies diverted again toward industry and armaments. The coin reverted to chrome-plated steel for the ­duration.

The 1955–’81 stretch was the longest period during which the coin was nickel both by name and by nature. Then the price of nickel spiked in the 1980s. Economics led to the nickel’s nickel content being ­downgraded to just 25 per cent, with copper making up the difference.

Continued rising nickel prices prompted another change 21 years ago. The multi-layered plating process of alternating layers of copper and nickel over a steel core that now makes up the nickel was invented and patented by the Royal Canadian Mint. Less nickel is needed — only two per cent, used only in the plating — and each coin retains a stronger, brighter surface.

With this latest change in composition came very slight changes to dimensions.

The nickel of the 21st century weighs about half a gram less, is one-hundredth of a ­millimetre smaller across, and is ­six-hundredths of a millimetre thicker than earlier versions.

Manufacturing each new five-cent coin today costs less than face value. In ­comparison, a U.S. nickel coin, which is ­composed of 25 per cent nickel and 75 per cent copper, costs eight cents.

And while the intrinsic value of the Canadian nickel has decreased, the coin’s spending power has tanked even further. A century ago, you couldn’t buy much for five cents — a cake of laundry soap, half a pound of stewing prunes, or one-third of a pound of local cured kippers at The ­People’s ­Grocerteria (their spelling, not mine), according to the Daily Colonist.

Today, a nickel is worth one-third of one per cent of B.C.’s current minimum wage.

It’s difficult to find even five-cent candy selling for a nickel these days.

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