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U.S. Three Cent Coins

The smallest U.S. coin ever issued in terms of weight and thickness was designed to answer two situation.

The first situation was, the 1849 gold rush resulted in mining enormous quantities of gold. This in turn caused the value of gold to fall in relationship to silver leading to widespread hoarding of silver coins. By 1851, few silver coins remained in circulation. Nickel coins were not legal at the time, so the only remaining coins for making change for a dollar were copper large cents and half cents.

The second situation was, federal officials wanted to reduce the basic prepaid postal rate from five cents to three cents. Senator Daniel Stevens Dickinson of New York concluded, that a three-cent coin would be a convenient way to purchase postal stamps.

The problem was, most Americans were uncomfortable with fiat money (money worth less than its face value), therefore rejection of a base-metal three-cent piece seemed certain. On the other hand, a precious-metal coin made from 90% silver and 10% copper would have also been subject to hoarding and melting.

The final solution was, a three-cent coin with enough precious metal to avoid being thought of as fiat money but not enough to draw the interest of hoarders. The alloy they selected was 75% silver and 25% copper. This proposal became law as the Act of March 3, 1851, taking effect June 30 of that year.

Some say the three cent coin was fathered by the gold rush and mothered by the nation's postal system.

★★★★★ Silver Three Cent ★★★★★

James Barton Longacre designed the coin. Its very small size made the job extremely difficult. Even allowing for that, few people find the coin artistically compelling. The obverse depicts a nationalistic shield upon a six-pointed star, encircled by the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the date. The reverse states the value in Roman numerals III within a stylized, beaded C and thirteen stars along the border.

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Three Cent Coin (Type 1) Obverse Three Cent Coin (Type 1) Reverse

Type 1 No Outline on Star

At the beginning, the three-cent coins worked as intended (facilitating the purchase of postage stamps). But a problem soon became apparent: the coin was so small it often got lost in people's pocket, worse yet, it was lost altogether. Working men's wages was usually less than 10 cents an hour so Losing three cents was no small matter. Also, the tiny coins grew discolored and filthy due to their alloy. Soon these trimes as they were called, acquired the nickname fish scales.

From 1851 to 1853 three cent coins were struck at the Philadelphia and New Orleans Mints. They were 75 percent silver and 25 percent copper. This was the original design. Coins dated 1854 to 1858 in order to correspond, were given the standard weight at 90% silver and 10% copper.

In the 1850's Spanish one-half, one, two, four and eight reales circulated right alongside U. S. coins. The discovery of gold fields in California and Australia drove down the price of the gold to a point where it was cheaper than the exchange rate of silver. This caused the bullion value of many silver to exceed the face value of coins. The results was, vast quantities of silver coins were melted and exported to Europe. By 1850 silver coins were disappearing and Stores, merchants began to pay extra for coins.

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Three Cent Coin (Type 2) Obverse Three Cent Coin (Type 2) Reverse

Type 2 Three Lines around Star

In 1849 congressman Samuel F. Vinton, wrote to Mint Director Robert M. Patterson requesting proposals for a new cent of reduced size and a three-cent piece to be made of copper and some other precious metal. After some debate and delay, the change was finally authorized by the act of March 3, 1851. The new coin was to weigh 12-3/8 grains and be .750 silver and .250 copper. It was noted that since the face value exceeded the bullion value, the coin was sure to stay in circulation.

Longacre modified the star on the obverse by adding three outlines to the star. The new reverse was to show a bunch of arrows below and an olive branch above the Roman numeral III. These changes was intended to correct the striking problems with the original design, also to show the change in weight and fineness of the new coin. The first Type 2 pieces, dated 1854, were released on May 22.

The modifications made to the Type 2 coins exacerbated problems with striking the earlier design. Only five years later more changes were again made in hopes of clearing up the problems. In 1859, Chief Engraver James Longacre made some minor adjustments to the design.

Longacre, assisted by Anthony C. Paquet retained the basic design on the obverse and the Roman numeral III on the reverse which is surrounded by the letter C, but he reduced the number of outlines around the central star from three to two. In addition, he used narrower letters and spaced them farther apart than on the Type 2 coins. He also reduced the size of the numerals in the date.

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Three Cent Coin (Type 3) Obverse Three Cent Coin (Type 3) Reverse

Type 3 Two Lines around Star

In 1859, little over a decade after the California Gold Rush began, new gold and silver bonanzas again captured the attention of the nation. Vast deposits of the precious metals were discovered outside Denver, Colorado and in the famous Comstock Lode in Nevada. Much of these metals found their way to the mints in Philadelphia and San Francisco and used for coinage.

In the mid-1850's, the Mint paid a price for bullion slightly above the market price, this effectively divided the profit from producing coinage between the government and the bullion owner. Therefore, the amount of silver coinage was not based upon the public's need for change but upon the amount of silver bullion owners would sell to the Mint. As a result, there was a tremendous surplus of small copper, copper-nickel and silver coinage in the nation in the late 1850's, so much so that small coins was looked upon as a public nuisance.

When the Civil War broke out, the situation was radically changed. The federal government suspended coin payments and used paper currency in 1862. The glut of small change was reduced to a trickle: every coin with intrinsic value was either hoarded domestically or exported to countries like Canada, the West Indies or Central America.


Silver Three Cent Specs.

Type 1 - Star W/O Outline
Designer: James Barton Longacre
Weight: .8 grams
Diameter: 14.3 millimeters
Edge: Plain
Content: 75% silver 25% copper
Mint Mark Location: Just right of the opening of the C on the reverse.

Type 2 - Star Triple Outline
Designer: James Barton Longacre
Content: 90% silver 10% copper
Weight: .75 grams

Type 3 - Star Double Outline
Designer: James Barton Longacre
Silver Three Cent Mintage

Date/Mint Circulation Strikes
Type 1 Silver 3 Cent
1851 5,447,400
1851 O 720,000
1852 18,663,500
1853 11,400,000
Type 2 Silver 3 Cent
1854 671,000
1855 139,000
1856 1,458,000
1857 1,042,000
1858 1,604,000
Type 3 Silver 3 Cent
1859 365,000
1860 286,000
1861 497,000
1862 343,000
1863 21,000
1864 12,000
1865 8,000
1866 22,000
1867 4,000
1868 3,500
1869 4,500
1870 3,000
1871 3,400
1872 1,000

Three Cent Piece (Silver) Grading

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★★★★★ Nickel Three Cent ★★★★★

Civil War hoarding of precious metals was so widespread that even the small copper-nickel cents had disappeared from circulation. Many alternatives were tried such as private tokens, encased postage, postal currency and fractional currency; all were unpopular, especially the fractional currency.

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Three Cent Coin (Nickel) Obverse Three Cent Coin (Nickel) Reverse

Nickel Three Cent (1865-1889)

Representative John Kasson had for some time opposed the minting of Nickel coins by blocking legislation authorizing its use. But, in 1864, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed a new issue of three-cent postal currency Congressman Kasson realized even nickel coinage was preferable to the universally despised paper money. The remarkable thing about the bill was that it was introduced to the House by Kasson.

With Congressional authorization, production of a three cent coin began in 1865. The new coins had a silvery appearance which, no doubt, was useful in crowding out the old, unwanted pieces of fractional currency, it also aided in replacing the silver three-cent pieces.

The obverse features Liberty wearing a coronet with a ribbon in her hair. While Liberty appeared much the same as on several other coins, including the $20 Double Eagle, her only appearance with a ribbon in her hair was on the three cent coin.

The reverse displays a Roman numeral III with the same wreath as used on the 1859 Indian Head cent.

Mint Director James Pollock saw the Nickel three cent coin only as a substitute coin until the silver three-cent piece could again circulate. Ironically, it was the silver coin that was discontinued first. 16 years after the public had forgotten its unpleasant experience with fractional currency notes, all pretences for needing a three-cent coin ended when postal rates changed. The denomination was discontinued by the Act of September 26, 1890.


Nickel Three Cent Specs.

Designer: James Barton Longacre
Weight: 1.9 grams
Diameter: 17.9 millimeters
Edge: Plain
Content: 75% copper 25% nickel
Mint Mark: None (All coins were minted in Philadelphia.)
Nickel Three Cent Mintage

Date/Mint Circulation Strikes Date/Mint Circulation Strikes
1865 11,382,000 1866 4,801,000
1867 3,915,000 1868 3,252,000
1869 1,604,000 1870 1,335,000
1871 604,000 1872 862,000
1873 1,173,000 1874 790,000
1875 228,000 1876 162,000
1877 0 1878 0
1879 38,000 1880 21,000
1881 1,077,000 1882 22,200
1883 4,000 1884 1,700
1885 1,000 1886 0
1887 5,000 1888 36,500
1889 18,125

Nickel Three Cent

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