Three Cents for Your Thoughts
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By Dennis Rockleinimg20.gif (32086 bytes)

(Editor's note: click on images to enlarge to full size.)

With the inflation that has occurred during the past few decades the expression, “a ‘penny’ for your thoughts,” is not all that appropriate. Not only do we not have ‘pennies,’ we have cents, but would have to use 3 of them or 3 coins at a minimum to arrive at 3-cents.

It was not always necessary to use 3 coins, because there was a 3-cent coin or unit issued by the United States Government. This article will present 3 different types of 3-cent pieces of 6 different varieties issued by the U.S. Government that actually circulated in this great country and which still to this day remain legal tender, provided that anyone would want to spend one.

The Cause for 3-Cent Issuance

The 3 different 3-cent pieces were issued from 1851 to 1889, a period of 39 years. It started with a silver 3-cent piece that came about initially because in 1851 there was a great reduction in postal rates. In the 1840’s the postal system was established with a rate of 5-cents for a 1/2 ounce letter for the first 300 miles, 10-cents for over 300 miles and on the Pacific coast 10-cents and 40-cents for the same distances. In 1851, 1/2 ounce went 3000 miles for just 3-cents, and over 3000 miles for 6-cents. In fact the law of March 3, 1851 which changed the postal rates was the same law that provided for the 3-cent piece. Why was the establishment of a silver 3-cent piece necessary? Answer: to carry on government business. While it is true that 1-cent and 1/2 cent piece coins were made, they did not find great acceptance in the southern and western states. In those areas coinage had to be of silver or gold. Copper was in disfavor, it did not circulate. The government business carried on by the 3-cent piece was the sale of postal stamps.

The 3-cent silver or trime

The 3-cent silver was first suggested in 1849. The first variety 3-cent silver or trime issued 1851 to 1853, is probably the most simple in design of all United States coins. The obverse holds a Union Shield on a 6-pointed star in the center with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” around and the date below. The reverse has the plain Roman numeral III (3) in a large “C” with 13, 6-pointed stars around.

The Variety 1 trime is the only United States coin to have been minted with a composition of 750 partsimg21.gif (30111 bytes) silver and 250 parts copper. The trime was the first U. S. coin worth considerably less than face value in metallic content. The actual metallic value was 86% of face value, which sounds great considering our token coinage of today, but which at the time limited the legal tender value to 30 cents. The variety 1 trime holds .6 gram of silver. It was used to retire low denomination foreign coins and was the most plentiful United States silver coin in circulation from 1851 to 1853, after which the other silver coins were reduced in weight. It was the first U. S. coin issued without the word “Liberty” or any symbolization of Liberty on it. It is the only U. S. Coin to have 1 star dominant on one side of the coin. (Texas the lone star state was admitted to the union in 1845.) The above facts are very interesting in view of the political situation regarding the north and south and slavery in that time period. The trime of 1851 was the smallest denomination made at the New Orleans mint. All other 3-cent coins were made at Philadelphia.

img22.gif (39349 bytes)The second variety of trime, 1854 to 1858, is modified to effect that there are now 3 outlines to the star. The reverse was modified so that there is an olive sprig over the III and a bundle of arrows beneath. The greatest change of variety 2 is in weight and composition. The weight was reduced to 3/4 gram, making it the smallest in weight and thickness of any U.S. coin. The composition was changed to .900 silver with .100 copper, thus increasing the silver weight .075 gram to .675 gram. The trime misses being the smallest U.S. coin in diameter by 1 mm. The type 1 gold dollar (1849-1854) is 13 mm in diameter. The trime is 14 mm in diameter. Because of the changes in composition and design, the 2nd variety trime is usually weakly struck having incomplete shield lines and dates even on uncirculated specimens.

The third variety of trime 1859-1873, has the obverse modified so thatimg23.gif (45243 bytes) there are 2 lines bordering the star and the date is smaller. The reverse is the same as type 2. There are 3 overdates in variety 3, 1862/1, 1863/2 and 1869/8. Circulated coins 1863 and after are rarely encountered. They were melted or exported. The mint practice at the time was that one could bring silver and gold to the mint and have coins of the current year made to order or received in exchange. Also to acquire proof coinage, coin was the only acceptable medium of exchange. With the lack of coin in circulation due to the suspension of specie payment in 1862, it is surprising that any later trimes exist at img24.gif (39216 bytes) all, however existence of the 1863 to 1873 trimes, primarily proofs, is probably due to the above 2 facts. The trime was eliminated by the law of February 12, 1873, the crime of 1873, which also eliminated the silver dollar. James B. Longacre designed the trimes which all have plain edges.

Change in Monetary Policy Affects the 3-Cent Issue

Prior to 1861, all U.S. government issues of money were specie or hard money having metallic value at or near to face value. On July 17, 1861, legislation was passed creating a federal status paper currency while suspending specie payments. The new paper currency could not be redeemed in specie or coin, so as a result all gold and silver coins disappeared from circulation, including the trime. Congress acted again on July 17, 1862, authorizing the issuance of postage stamps by the treasury to alleviate the small change shortage. Unfortunately this idea was unsuccessful and short lived for stamps wore out quickly and there was no provision for redemption or exchange of worn stamps. One bright person, J. Gault, patented an August 12, 1862, a method of encasing postal stamps. Although this was successfully accepted and advertising covered the cost of encasing the stamps, the project was short lived for lack of sufficient postal stamps. Scoville Manufacturing produced the encased postage. The most common denomination of encased postage is 3-cents, probably due to the fact that 3-cent stamps were most common.

The 3-Cent Note

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Front and back of 3 cent note

img26.gif (23614 bytes)The 3-cent note is from the third issue of fractional currency, which was authorized by act of congress in the Treasury Bill Law of June 30, 1864. The act passed entire responsibility of currency to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. He received authority of denomination, design, method, and redemption. The first act of Secretary Chase was to provide the 3-cent denomination. S. M. Clark superintendent of the National Currency Board, had a great influence on design of the third issue notes. He actually placed his picture on the 5-cent note. He worked with Dr. Stewart Gwynne, a chemist, on various methods, including papers, inks and designs to thwart counterfeiting.

The obverse of the 3-cent note has as the centerpiece a portrait of George Washington. There are 2 varieties of 3-cent notes, one has a light background and one has a dark background to Washington’s portrait. Above George is “United States” and “ACT OF MARCH 3D 1863” (the date of authorization for all fractional currency.) To the sides are boldly “THREE…CENTS” and hard to read “RECEIVABLE FOR…ALL U.S. STAMPS,” and “FURNISHED ONLY BY THE…ASSISTANT TREASURERS,” “& DESIGNATED DEPOSITORIES…OF THE UNITED STATES.” Below are “FRACTIONAL CURRENCY” and “TREASURY DEPARTMENT” (where they were printed, which is today the Bureau of printing & engraving.) A scroll with the words “E PLURIBUS UNUM” (one among many) is on the shields in the upper corners the center of which is a “3”. The centerpiece of the reverse is an ornate “3” surrounded by 16 stars. The legend reads (to left) “This note is exchangeable for, UNITED STATES NOTES, BY ASSISTANT TREASURERS, AND DESIGNATED DEPOSITARIES OF, THE UNITED STATES” and (to right) “in sums not less that Three Dollars, RECEIVABLE IN PAYMENT, OF ALL DUES TO THE, UNITED STATES LESS THAN FIVE DOLLARS, EXCEPT CUSTOMS.” In the 4 corners is the Roman numeral III in an ellipse. The 3-cent notes were printed in sheets of 25 on thick or thin white bond paper. They were printed damp then dried. The third issue of fractional currency was issued from December 5, 1864, to August 16, 1869. However an act of congress on May 17, 1866, prohibited the issue of any bill with a denomination of less than 10 cents.

The 3-Cent Nickel

An act of Congress on March 3, 1865, created the 3-cent nickel. It was the result of lobbying by nickel interests. One company than contributed to the lobbying of congress was the Scoville Manufacturing which provided nickel planchets to the mint in the 1860’s. James B. Longacre designed the 3-cent nickel, which has a plain edge.

img27.gif (32289 bytes)The reverse and obverse of the nickel 3 cent

img28.gif (34591 bytes)The obverse of the 3-cent nickel portrays Liberty facing left. In liberty’s hair is a “tiara,” a woman’s crown-like headdress of jewels commonly called a coronet. The word “LIBERTY” is incuse on the coronet. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” is around and the date is below the bust. The reverse holds a laurel wreath, nearly identical to the laurel wreath on the 1859 Indian cent (also designed by Longacre), around the Roman numeral III. The nickel coinage circulated despite the lack of specie payment because it was not a specie coin. The reason for introduction of the 3-cent nickel was to retire the 3-cent notes. The low mintage after 1873 is directly related to redemption of the 3-cent notes and silver 3-cent pieces. The 3-cent nickel is exactly the same diameter as a dime, 17.9 mm, which caused it to be confusing and unpopular. Nickel looks like silver, thus is readily acceptable, while holding far less metallic value. Many of the coins show clash marks in the fields on one or both sides of the coin. Nickel 3-cent pieces were often weekly struck or made from worn dies. The word “Liberty” and Roman Numeral III are often weak or incomplete even on uncirculated specimens. The only over-date nickel is the 1887/6 only available as a proof. The nickel 3-cent was in production from 1865 to 1889, 25 years. All were made at the Philadelphia mint. The final demise of the 3-cent nickel was assured by 2 events. First, in 1875, specie payments were resumed. Second, in 1885, the postal rate was reduced uniformly to 2-cents.


How many people today know that 3-cent coins or notes exist? Now that you have read this article you are probably among the few that know about 3-cent issues. I will guess that not many including those interested in our hobby know about 3-cent issues. I would like to know more if you have new information. How many have actually seen one in circulation? I have talked to someone who received an 1874 3-cent nickel in change as a dime around the 1950’s. And how many numismatists actually have any interest in them? Good question, most collectors would hold specimens for a type set at most. There is very little material written about the 3-cent. Are there any lessons to be learned from looking at the history of the 3-cent? The 3-cent went from silver to paper to token, is that not the course for our dollar today?

It is hoped that you enjoyed this article about numismatic items that are truly obsolete. One last thought, if the 3-cent piece had been extremely successful could there not have been a continued issuance of a coin to correspond to the value of the current postage stamps? What would that have meant for collectors? Have any 32-cent pieces? Unfortunately the 2-cent piece had already failed.


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