Coins that Never Really Caught On — The 3ȼ Piece

Second in an occasional series.

My article, A Platinum Coin to Pay Down the Debt, was written with tongue firmly in cheek, but the US Treasury has come up with some real coins almost as ridiculous. Our first example was the two-cent piece. Today we introduce the three-cent piece.

In 1851, the Post Office Department lowered the cost of postage from five cents to three cents. Naturally, government officials decided there had to be a single coin that could be used to buy a single postage stamp.

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Originally, the three-cent-piece was made from a 75/25 silver/copper alloy, but this changed to the more usual 90/10 alloy in 1854. The three-cent silver was the smallest coin ever issued by the United States, weighing in at 4/5 of a gram and a diameter smaller than a modern dime.(For comparison purposes, one of today’s dimes weighs in at 2.3 grams.) They were officially called trimes by the mint director, but known by the public at the time as “fishscales.”

In 1854, its weight was reduced to 3/4 of a gram by reducing thickness. The coin went through several design changes during the years it was minted (1851-1873) but was never terribly popular because of its small size and incredible ability to get lost.

The Civil War led to widespread hoarding of all silver coins, and even the lowly penny and nickel began to disappear. The government tried a number of methods to alleviate the shortage, and eventually settled on fractional currency. These small denomination (3 to 50 cent) paper notes were even less popular, as they were about the size of postage stamps, even easier to lose, and hard to handle in large amounts.

 

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Government officials were certain they had finally found the answer in 1865 when they introduced the three cent nickel coin. This coin was composed of copper and nickel and was larger than the silver coin of the same denomination. It was never intended as a permanent issue, only as a stopgap measure until the wartime hoarding ceased; even so, it was minted until 1889. This coin was only slightly more popular than the silver version, but with the introduction of mechanical vending machines it suddenly enjoyed a resurgence. The reason: it was the same diameter as the dime, and several enterprising souls discovered they could use the three cent piece and save seven cents.

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Depending on condition, you can pay as much as $2000 for some of these coins, but a three-cent-silver in fine condition can be had for around $50, while a nickel version in the same condition is available for about half that.

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