The Great Depression created an army of destitute and defeated men were left with zero outlet for energy and income.
These men found themselves roaming from town to town in search of work. These migrant workers became known as “hobos” and they differed from another group of wandering men from this time period who called “tramps”. Whereas a hobo was a man in search of work, tramps were considered vagrants who lacked any desire to work at all. Both were often beaten by locals, especially when they were caught hitching an illegal ride on a passing train.
The long hours of downtime provided an opportunity for many of them to perfect an unusual form of art: re-sculpting the few American coins they came across.
The coin of choice was the Buffalo nickel, which was first introduced in 1913. The large Native American head, as well as the softness of the nickel made it ideal for carving in finer detail compared to other coins. The nickel was also favored by hobos because of its low value compared to the Morgan dollars and the Columbian half dollar.
The altered Buffalo Nickels became known as hobo nickels. Depending on how well and artistic they were, they were often sold for much more than five cents.