No one likes to lose money.
Originally, In 1792, coins were made of silver alloys and their value was based on the weight of the coin. A dollar coin was made of silver and weighed 27 grams. A half dollar weighed half that of the dollar at 13.5 grams. And, the weights of the coins went down systematically, all the way to the half penny. At that time, there were no “nickels” like we know them today. There was a half dime which was half the weight of a dime and was worth five cents. This weighed more than the penny. And the half penny, in turn weighed half that of a penny. It was all proportionate.
Dimes are tiny. Pennies are tiny. How many of these coins do think you may have lost in your lifetime? Well, consider life in the 1790’s. Prices were very different! A common laborer would earn about two dollars a WEEK. For three and a half cents you could buy a pound of beef. Those tiny little coins were VALUABLE. If your half dime fell out of your pocket, you just lost groceries for the week.
The five cent piece changed in the 1860’s. Joseph Wharton was an industrialist who owned nickel mines.
Working with his connections in Congress, he pushed through a different kind of coin, made of nickel. This is where we get the nickel coin that we are familiar with today – a five cent piece made of nickel alloy which is bigger than the half dimes of old. Of course, the coin was bigger, thus using more nickel. It makes sense that an industrialist who sells nickel would want a bigger coin with which uses more nickel. But, let’s thank him for his contributions to a five cent piece which isn’t minuscule and too easy to lose.
The first nickel of this variety is called the Shield Nickel. This turned out to be a problematic coin to produce. It was only in production for seven years.
Following the Shield Nickel, the US produced the Liberty V Nickel. These nickels stayed in production for nearly twenty years.
Buffalo Nickels followed the Liberty V Nickel, then the Jefferson Nickels we have had ever since.
Dimes never have changed much in size. In the references below, you can find a chart which shows US coins detailing their composition and sizes.