US Coins: the American three-cent coin

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30 November 2015
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1852_3_Cent_Silver_-_Type_1-56359.jpg 3 cent silver piece
In the 38-year career of the US three cent piece (1851-1889), the coins were cursed, ridiculed, lambasted, and satirised, writes David A Norris, as he looks back on the ill-fated denomination

At first, three cent pieces seemed to be a good idea. They could buy a postage stamp once the standard letter rate dropped to three cents in 1851.

Although the first US mint opened in 1792, small change was still in short supply. Americans disliked the current large-sized one cent coins, and cents did not circulate in much of the nation, especially the rural areas. A fresh supply of three cent coins would help postmasters make change, and it would also help retire ‘worn out Spanish money’.

Small denomination Spanish colonial-era coins dating back to the 1700s were still legal tender, even though they were worn smooth.

US Mint engraver James Longacre created the new coin’s obverse, which bore a shield inside a six-pointed star, the words ‘United States of America’, and the date. The reverse was packed with a Roman numeral III inside a large ‘C’ for ‘cents, surrounded by thirteen stars.

Production began early in 1851, to make sure that coins would be available when the new postage rate took effect in July. Other than 720,000 minted at New Orleans in 1851, all three cent coins ever made would be minted in Philadelphia. 36 million three cent pieces were struck by 1853. Output in 1854 dropped to 671,000, to allow the mints to concentrate on larger-denomination silver coins.

The first three cent coins were 75 percent silver and 25 percent copper. The silver gave them some intrinsic value, but not enough to tempt speculators into melting them down, as was the problem with other circulating American silver coins.

With only about two and a half cents’ worth of silver, three cent pieces were the tiniest coins ever made by the US Mint.

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They were only 14.3 millimetres across and weighed 0.8 grams; by contrast, the modern dime is 17.91 mm across. In 1854, the silver content was raised to 90%, in line with other US silver coins. The diameter remained the same, but the coins became thinner as the weight was reduced to 0.75 grams.

In 1854 an olive branch appeared above the ‘III’ on the reverse, and a small bundle of arrows below it. A double outline was added to the star on the obverse, which was changed to a single line in 1859. Counterfeit three cent pieces were widespread during the 1850s. To some folks, there seemed to be as many phony ‘trimes’ as real ones in circulation. Genuine coins with the minor alterations of 1854 and 1859 were suspected of being new counterfeits.

Incensed by three cents
Americans quickly became irritated with three cent coins.

They were legal tender only in small amounts; for a time, the limit was a sum impossible to pay in three cent coins: 25 cents. People lost money by mistaking silver ‘trimes’ for seated liberty half dimes (silver five-cent pieces). Because the dollar was not divisible by three, three cent pieces annoyed anyone who handled money or accounts.

The ‘odious little three cent coins’ seemed unnecessary after the domestic postage rate dropped to two cents in 1883. Congress decided that the coins had outlived their usefulness, and the last were minted in 1889.

Proposals to revive the three cent piece during World War Two, to ease the strain on the supply of small change, came to nothing.