Is It an 1873 or an 1878?
Way back in 1873, the U.S. Mint started off the year making shield nickels with a style of date we now call a "Closed 3". The Closed 3 caused great confusion among the public, who thought it more resembled an eight instead of a three. On January 18, 1873, Chief Coiner A. Louden Snowden complained to the director of the mint, James Pollack, about the 1873 logotypes in a letter* that read:
1873 Closed 3. Note how the arms of the 3 are nearly touching.
I desire in a formal manner to direct your attention to the "figures" used in dating the dies for the present year.
They are so heavy, and the space between each so very small that upon the small gold and silver and upon the base coins, it is almost impossible to distinguish with the naked eye whether the last figure is an eight or a three. In our ordinary coinage many of the pieces are not brought fully up, and upon such it is impossible to distinguish what is the last figure of the year's date.
I do not think it creditable to the institution that the coinage of the year should be issued bearing this defect in the date. I would recommend that an entire new set of figures, avoiding the defect of those now in use, be prepared at the earliest possible day.
I am Very Truly Your Obedient Servant
A. Louden Snowden, Chief Coiner
1873 Open 3. The arms of the 3 are much farther apart.
The request for the new logotype was approved. The result is the logotype known today as the "Open 3".
It is not uncommon today to find 1873 coins that are difficult to classify as either Open or Closed 3. Logotypes were punched into the dies by hand. There was great variability not only in how deeply the date punches were impressed, but also in how well the coins were struck.
* My thanks given to Edward L. Fletcher for the quoted letter from A. Louden Snowden, reproduced in his excellent book The Shield Five Cent Series.
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