Hobo Nickels: The Folk Art Tradition You’ve Never Heard Of

Discover the transient folk art that swept the nation during the Great Depression.

Published April 24, 2023
Buffalo Nickels

While hitchhiking feels like a distant memory, it wasn't an uncommon practice. Transient life was particularly popular during the Great Depression, as it was many people's only means of getting around and finding work. To occupy their time and make a quick dollar, transient people carved out new designs on buffalo nickels. These hobo nickels are a fine representation of American folk art and are a unique (and affordable) coin to collect.

Hobo Nickels: An Underrated Folk Art Practice

As the Great Depression ravaged American society, migrant workers took to the trains with their meager belongings looking for work. Along the way, they occupied their time doing what humans do best - making art. These 'hobos' used any tool at their disposal to transform the Buffalo nickel's design into something else entirely.

These bas relief designs made the simple nickels have more cultural capital, and they were often traded for goods and services. Currently, these vintage nickels aren't that hard to find, and people continue practicing the art style today.

How Can You Identify a Hobo Nickel?

The obvious indicator that you might have a hobo nickel is the visual alteration to the front or back image on a buffalo nickel. However, there is one other standard in these classic hobo nickels to look out for. Typically, the date and 'Liberty' on nickel is preserved. Of course, with these older coins, the actual numbers and letters might have worn off, but there should be an empty space where they normally would be.

Hobo Nickel Styles and Designs

1913 Type Two, Carved Reverse Hobo Nickel by 'Bo' Hughes

There are three different categories that traditional hobo nickels fall into:

  • Obverse - Obverse hobo nickels only have the face changed.
  • Reverse - Reverse hobo nickels only have the buffalo side of the coin changed.
  • Double-Sided - Double-sided hobo nickels have both sides changed.

Because hobo nickels weren't created out of some school of thought or artistic instruction, there are thousands of unique designs. But these vintage pieces made from rudimentary tools are relatively limited in their subject matter. Think individual figures, like thought leaders, women, clowns, and soldiers on the obverse and various animals on the reverse.

Hobo Nickel Artists and Anonymity

1950 Carving by 'Bo' Hughes, Well-Documented Cameo Nickel

Thanks to the name of the traveling game, the vast majority of hobo nickel artists' names were lost to time. Yet, there are a few who are celebrated for working at the height of its classic era:

  • Betram Wiegand
  • Bo Hughes
  • William Kopman
  • William Sharples

If you're interested in learning more about the many artists that've been documented over the years, check out the Hobo Nickel Society's carvers page.

How Much Are Hobo Nickels Worth?

Bert's Lady, Superior Quality Carved c.1939

Most hobo nickels, despite being linked to such a historically significant period, aren't worth that much. They're pretty easy to come by and don't usually cost more than $20 on average. However, the older the nickel, the more money it'll sell for. For example, one 1937 hobo nickel in average condition sold for $19.36 on eBay while one 1917 hobo nickel sold for $95. The only substantial difference between the two is the nickel's age.

Of course, collector demand is a huge determining factor in how much one of these nickels can sell for. For example, one 1913-S type 2 sold for $899 on eBay, likely due to the fact that the coin itself is already a valuable mintage.

Similarly, obverse hobo nickels are the most common, with reverse and double-sided progressively rarer, making each one increasingly more valuable. Take this reverse donkey hobo nickel from 1913 that sold for $8,400 in 2019, for instance.

However, in larger auction houses, you will find that signed hobo nickels that are in extremely good condition and carved by prominent artists can sell for thousands. For example, one of Bert Wiengand's female portraits from 1939 recently sold for $31,200.

Where Can You Buy Hobo Nickels?

Since they're so easy to source, you can find hobo nickels online in your average marketplace or vintage retailer. Or, if you want a chance to get access to some of the more valuable and rare hobo nickels, you can tune into the Hobo Nickel Society's annual auction that takes place in January. Explore their past auction catalogs to see what kinds of hidden gems they've offered in the past.

Hobo Nickels Elevate the Mundane

Historically, folk art has spent decades trying to be legitimized not only by the art world but by the public at large. So, in another lifetime, hobo nickels might be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, but because of their commonplace origins and amateur artistry, they aren't worth much money today. However, because they're so cheap, you can build a beautiful and robust collection for half the price of any gallery piece.

Hobo Nickels: The Folk Art Tradition You’ve Never Heard Of