Due to its low cost and portability, this medium was particularly popular among hobos, hence the name.
When the Indian Head or Buffalo nickel was introduced in 1913, it became popular among coin engravers. The big Indian head was a radical departure from previous designs, and would not be seen on any subsequent coins. The large, thick profile gave the artists a larger template to work on, and allowed for finer detail.
On earlier coins, the head was much smaller in relation to the size of the coin. For example, on a Lincoln cent, the head covers about one-sixth of the area. On the Buffalo nickel, the Indian's head occupies about five-sixths of the area. Moreover, the nickel is a larger coin. Large heads were sometimes found on earlier coins, such as the Morgan dollar and the Columbian half dollar commemoratives of 1892-3, but these coins were rarely altered because of their high value.
Another factor contributing to the Buffalo nickel's popularity was the sex of the subject. Nearly all previous coins had depicted women (Liberty head nickels, Indian head cents, Barber and Morgan silver dollars). A male head has larger, coarser features (nose, chin, brow) that can be altered in many ways. Even the buffalo on the reverse could be changed into another animal or a man with a backpack.
Many talented coin engravers, as well as newcomers, started creating hobo nickels in 1913, when the buffalo nickel entered circulation. This accounts for the quality and variety of engraving styles found on carved 1913 nickels. More classic old hobo nickels were made from 1913-dated nickels than any other pre-1930s date.
Many artists made hobo nickels from the tens to twenties, with new artists joining in as the years went by. The 1930s saw many talented artists adopting the medium. Bertram Wiegand, known almost exclusively as Bert, began carving nickels in the teens, and his student George Washington Hughes, known as Bo, began carving in the late teens (and up to 1980). During this period, buffalo nickels were the most common nickels in circulation.
During this 40-year period, many new carvers appeared, and style and subject matter became decidedly modern. Subjects became more ethnically and socially diverse (i.e. a Chinese woman with triangular hat, hippies with long hair and glasses, men wearing floppy hats, etc). Some of these new artists used new techniques such as power engravers, vibrating tools, and felt marker pens to add color to hair.
By the end of the seventies, the buffalo nickel had disappeared from circulation, and most engravings were performed on worn coins. "Bo", for example, was forced to obtain buffalo nickels from coin dealers, some of whom commissioned carvings.
Many carvers who were active during the 1960s and 1970s continued carving buffalo nickels into the 1980s. Their coins were altered using punches (dashes, dots, arcs, crescents, stars) and some carving of the profile. The area behind the head is usually rough from dressing with a power tool. They created standard design hobo nickels (derby and beard), as well as many modern subjects, such as occupational busts (fireman, railroad engineer, pizza chef), famous people (Uncle Sam, Einstein), hippies, and others.
A major event occurred in the early 1980s, demarcating the transition from "old" to "modern" hobo nickels. This was the publication of a series of articles by numismatist Del Romines, on the subject of hobo nickels. He soon published the first book on the subject, Hobo Nickels (ASIN B0006R7SFW), in 1982. Both centered on Bo and his carvings. This resulted in some new artists entering the field, most of whom simply copied Bo's nickel artwork from the illustrations in Romines' book. The two major Bo-style copycats were John Dorusa and Frank Brazzell. Together they produced 20,000 or more modern carved nickels, most of which were copies of Bo's designs. Dorusa even copied Bo's "GH" signature (for "George Washington Hughes") on many of this early creations. Pressure from prominent hobo nickel collectors such as Bill Fivaz convinced Dorusa to stop carving "GH" and put his own initials or name on his works. Dorusa and Brazzell also produced original works, featuring non-traditional subject matter (conquistadors, Dick Tracy, skulls, etc.) The large number of Bo copies led many collectors to label all modern carved nickels as "Neo-Bo's", a term no longer in use.
Other carvers also appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, introducing more modern subject matter (cartoon characters, witches, and animals). Most nickel carvers of the 1980s to mid 1990s are regarded by collectors as mediocre at best. But circa 1995, Ron Landis, an engraver in Arkansas, began creating superior quality carvings.
For about four years Landis was the only nickel carver creating superior carvings, at the rate of only one to two dozen per year (all signed, numbered, and dated). Many other professional engravers have since begun creating hobo nickels.
Some current prolific carvers are converting from quantity to quality: making fewer pieces of high artistic quality (as the market is flooded with lower quality quickly-made carvings). Modern carvings of Superior quality sell for about the same prices as classic old original carvings of equal quality by unknown artists.
From the early 1980s to present, modern lesser-quality carvings could and still can be purchased for as little as $5 to $10 each. Many new collectors found it hard to obtain good quality old original hobo nickels (as they are so scarce and costly) so they began collecting the readily obtainable and cheap modern works.
Some OHNS Board members have expressed concern that too much emphasis is given to modern carvings and the artists making them and that proportionately too many modern pieces are appearing in recent OHNS auctions. Information is much more readily available for modern carvers and their creations than pertaining to classic old hobo nickel artists.
About 100,000 (and possibly as many as 200,000) classic hobo nickels were created from 1913 to 1980. Modern artists have created (and continue to create) altered nickels in such large quantities that, within the next few years, the number of modern carvings is expected to surpass that of classic old hobo nickels. Most of the 100,000-plus classic old hobo nickels are not yet in the hands of collectors, whereas almost all modern carvings are. Among numismatists, the modern carvings already greatly outnumber the classic old hobo nickels.