28. Nickel: Face Value

From religion to money to politics, nickel finds itself at the center of all kinds of awkward conversations.

Featured above: Spencer M. Clark’s notorious portrait, which changed American money forever.

Show Notes

I Think It Tastes Pretty Good: RE: Pumpernickel, I’m just going to quote etymonline here:

“dark rye bread,” 1756, pompernickel, from German (Westphalian dialect) Pumpernickel (1663), originally an abusive nickname for a stupid person, from pumpern “to break wind” + Nickel “goblin, lout, rascal,” from proper name Niklaus (see Nicholas).

Whoops: I accidentally left this choice bit out of the episode, which really ties a couple different threads together. Alas!

S’nick: If you grew up watching cable television, or even if you’ve just flipped through the channels at any point in the past thirty years, you’ve certainly stumbled upon the behemoth of children’s programming, Nickelodeon. In between the game shows and cartoons and endless buckets of slime, perhaps you wondered: Why is this channel called Nickelodeon? After all, “there isn’t a kid watching who knows what a nickelodeon is.”

Those aren’t my words. That was the thought put forth by Bob Klein, head of Original Brand Identity around 1980. A nickelodeon, of course, was a kind of movie theater for one that typically cost five cents per viewing. They were most popular around the turn of the twentieth century.

But that really has nothing to do with the TV channel. In Slimed! An Oral History Of Nickeoldeon’s Golden Age, network creator Gus Hauser explained: “We had an outside firm who counseled us on various names we could use. At the end of that session … one of the things on the list was Nickelodeon. I said, ‘Let’s do Nickelodeon.’ And that was it.”

It’s a surprisingly anticlimactic origin story for a channel that was built on bombastic voices and surreal animation.

Episode Script

Nickel will feel very familiar after the last few episodes. We have here another transition metal that is magnetic and can create some very colorful salts. Alongside iron, nickel is plentiful in the earth’s core, albeit in much smaller amounts. Baron Axel Fredrik Cornstedt, who first isolated elemental nickel, was a student of Georg Brandt, the chemist who first isolated cobalt. And like cobalt, nickel is named after a supernatural trickster: This time, the devil himself, a character whom we bump into surprisingly often as we traverse the periodic table.

Element 28 often deceived German miners, like cobalt did, although with less fatal consequences. What appeared to be copper in the mine would be refined into this silvery, worthless stuff. They dubbed it kupfernickel, meaning “The Devil’s copper.” (As an aside, I highly recommend you look up the etymology of the bread known as “pumpernickel,” which deserves to be far more widely known.)

But if you think you’ve got nickel pegged, you’re in for some surprises. This work of the devil’s hands would go on to be a battleground for the pious, and would lend its name to a denomination of money only because it was relatively worthless.

So let’s embrace contradiction as we investigate both sides of nickel.

You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.

Today, we’re taking five with nickel.

Whenever the world starts looking a little worse for wear, there are always people who laud the value of precious metals. The American Civil War was definitely one of those times, and back then, there was silver and gold in the coins people used every day. The obvious thing to do was melt them down.

This was kind of a problem in the government’s eyes, since this directly took money out of circulation, and people can’t spend money if it doesn’t exist. The U. S. Mint didn’t have enough gold and silver to strike new coins. Stamps were declared legal tender as well, but that wasn’t enough.

Uncle Sam’s eye wandered toward element 28. It was plentiful, and it wasn’t a metal that people would hoard. The mint used it in the production of three-cent coins.

This worked pretty well, but a newly issued five-cent paper note was even easier to manufacture. National Currency Bureau superintendent Spencer M. Clark was the man in charge of that particular experiment. He was really good at the job. At least, he thought he was. So when deciding whose portrait should adorn a new version of the five-cent note, he thought, “How about me?”1

The only person who had to approve the design was Clark, so it wasn’t long before his picture was in everybody’s pocket.2

This little stunt was not very widely appreciated. He was castigated in newspapers, but he seemed to especially rile up Pennsylvania Congressman Russell Thayer. So offended was he that he introduced legislation decreeing that no living person’s image should ever appear on any “bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.” He made his case with great enthusiasm:

I hold in my hand a five-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes … I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States. … It is derogatory to the dignity and the self-respect of the nation … I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”

That seemed to do the trick. Thayer’s legislation passed with little opposition, and it was the law of the land that only deceased persons could appear on money.

So it must have been really embarrassing for Thayer, especially after making such an ardent plea, to realize that the law would only apply to new currency. Clark’s five-cent notes were effectively grandfathered in, and his face kept rolling off the presses.

The next month, with a little less blood and thunder, Congress passed another law that entirely outlawed any paper money worth less than ten cents.

That solved the problem of Spencer Clark’s shameless self-promotion, but there was still a need for some kind of money that was worth five cents. Back then, that had roughly the same purchasing power that one dollar has today.

Industrialist Joseph Wharton spotted this problem and approached Congress with a solution: Large half-dismes made of nickel. And, wouldn’t you know, he just happened to be the owner of a nickel mine and refinery.3

Apparently, Wharton was very persuasive, because not only did his friends in Congress agree to his proposal, but they made the new half-disme even larger and heavier than originally planned — which, of course, meant more money for Wharton.

Clearly he was a pretty savvy businessman. At least, he thought he was. So when he established the country’s first business school at the University of Pennsylvania, he made sure it was called The Wharton School — a bit of self-promotion that still stands to this day.

In time, the five-cent piece’s material became synonymous with the denomination. And the nickel quickly became one of several battlegrounds for a crusade of a different sort.

The U.S. was experiencing a fairly strong religious revival in the lead-up to the Civil War, and violent conflict has a way of strengthening those convictions.

In November of 1861, one reverend M. R. Watkinson wrote an impassioned request to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, which read:

Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances.

One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.

You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.

To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.4

Secretary Chase was moved by this letter, and after making its way through all the proper channels, American coins were emblazoned with four iconic words: “In God We Trust.”5

This motto remained on American coins throughout the Civil War, to show whose side God was on, and for nearly two decades afterward. But in 1883, the nickel was actually the first piece of money to see those four words disappear, when the pendulum of Americian spirituality swung toward secularism.

After another half-century, In God We Trust had reappeared on American coinage, and in 1956, Representative Charles Bennett of Florida introduced a bill proposing that “In God We Trust” become the official motto of the United States, mandating that it appear in all-capital letters on every denomination of paper money. He argued,

In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom.”

“In God We Trust” is not without controversy, despite what Reverend Watkinson might have thought, but no court in the United States has found the motto in violation of any part of the Constitution. President Eisenhower signed the bill into law on July 30, 1956, and God has been on our money ever since.6

That almost sounds too on-the-nose for the capitalist contender in the Cold War, but on the communist side, nickel was part of something much more extreme.

The city of Norilsk in northern Russia is home to some of the richest deposits of nickel in the world, and that’s probably the nicest thing you can say about it.

With a population around 200,000, Norilsk is one of the largest cities in the world that’s north of the Arctic Circle. These days, it’s basically a company town, with the vast majority of its residents employed by Norilsk Nickel.

It’s as cold, windy, and dark as any place so far north, but it’s also one of the most polluted cities in the world.7 The scent of sulfur hangs in the air, and the frequent snow can be pink or yellow, but is more often stained black with soot.8 Industrial waste has caused the local river to run bright red, and scarcely a single tree can be found within 30 kilometers of the city.9

And every summer, the city is offered an unavoidable reminder of its dreadful past, when the melting snow reveals the bones of prisoners sent to the gulag by Joseph Stalin.10

Norilsk was not, strictly speaking, a death camp. But of the 600,000-plus prisoners who were sent there between 1935 and 1956, well over a third died — either frozen, starved, or worked to death.11 Toward the end, thousands of brave women led a protest against their overseers. After a month-long work strike and a week-long hunger strike, the prisoners left their barracks. While guards readied their machine guns, those women started to dig their own graves.12

This all finally ended when Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev dismantled the gulag system following Stalin’s death, but many of the city’s current residents are children or grandchildren of those political prisoners. New arrivals are usually attracted by the high salaries offered by Norilsk Nickel, although the cost of living is correspondingly high.

Norilsk is a brutal place to live. But despite that — or perhaps because of it — the people who live there form a tight-knit community. As one longtime resident says, “Cold temperature will most likely not kill you. … People have very warm hearts and help each other.”13

Even if you’d like to visit Norilsk to add element 28 to your collection, you’re probably out of luck. Outsiders aren’t allowed to visit unless they fill out half a dozen forms and invite the scrutiny of local police and the Federal Security Service.

So what is an element chaser to do? Well, there is another country that’s loaded with nickel, and they’re very proud of it: Canada. Nearly 2 billion years ago, the Sudbury region of Ontario was struck by an enormous nickel-rich meteor, and it’s made Canada a world leader in nickel production.

Many of Canada’s coins were primarily made of nickel during the twentieth century. The five-cent piece would make a fine sample for most people, but the discerning collector will be pleased to learn that a Norwegian chemist named Anders Mikkelsen performed extensive chemical analysis on Canadian currency for precisely the purpose. The winner, surprisingly, is the Canadian quarter. Those minted between 1968 and 1999 are made of better than 99% nickel.14

Sadly, Canadian quarters made in this millennium are made mostly of steel, only boasting a thin plating of nickel accounting for around 2% of the coin. The problem is that nickel has slowly become a more valuable metal, making it cost well over five cents to make a single nickel.

The prospect is similarly bleak if you head south. The American nickel has a little more of element 28 in there — it’s about 25% nickel, with its insides being made of copper. Frankly, this makes it a pretty poor sample of either element for your collection.

But there is a rather poetic symmetry to this situation: This element used to be an unwanted by-product for miners who had been searching for copper, but now, the very coin that bears this element’s name happens to carry three times more copper than nickel. Just about the only think you can expect from Old Nick is that he’ll probably confound you.

Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn the secret origin story behind the name of children’s television channel Nickelodeon, visit episodic table dot com slash N i.

Next time, we’ll get even cheaper with copper.

Until then, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that this show premiered on January 1, 2018, and as this installment is released on December 31 of the same year, I’d like to sincerely thank you for exploring the periodic table with me. There’s a lot more to look forward to in 2019, not least because it was 150 years ago that Dmitri Mendeleev first published his version of his vision. In celebration, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and United Nations have officially decreed that it will be the Year of the Periodic Table.15 I’m sure you’re all as excited as I am for the yearlong jubilee, so have a safe and happy new year, and I’ll see you in 2019.

Sources

  1. Smithsonian Magazine, A Brief History Of The Nickel. Daniel A. Gross, April 28, 2016.
  2. Atlas Obscura, A Treasury Official In 1866 Put His Own Face On U.S. Currency. Michael Waters, June 19, 2017.
  3. History.com, The Hidden History Of The Nickel. Christopher Klein, May 16, 2016.
  4. U.S. Department Of The Treasury, History Of In God We Trust.’
  5. Basic Books, One Nation Under God. Kevin Kruse.
  6. Politico, ‘In God We Trust’ Becomes Nation’s Motto, July 30, 1956. Andrew Glass, July 30, 2018.
  7. The Sydney Morning Herald, Welcome To Norilsk, A City Build On Slavery And Cold Comfort. Sergey Ponomorev, December 4, 2017.
  8. The Guardian, Hell On Earth. Nick Paton Walsh, April 17, 2003.
  9. The Guardian, Where The River Runs Red: Can Norilsk, Russia’s Most Polluted City, Come Clean? Alec Luhn, September 15, 2016.
  10. The New York Times, Norilsk Journal; Comes The Thaw, The Gulag’s Bones Tell Their Dark Tale. Steven Lee Meyers, February 24, 2004.
  11. The New York Times, The Lure Of A Better Life, Amid Cold And Darkness. Andrew Higgins, December 3, 2017.
  12. The Guardian, Stalin’s Legacy Lives On In City That Slaves Built. James Meek, December 29, 1994.
  13. Quora, What’s It Like To Live In Norilsk, Siberia, Russia? Artur Ampilogov, November 16, 2016.
  14. PeriodicTable.com, Nickel. Theodore Gray.
  15. IUPAC, The International Year Of The Periodic Table.

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