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Three Cent Piece Considered Oddity
By R.W. Julian

Three-cent pieces, whether of silver or copper-nickel, have always been considered as something of an oddity. The value does not fit neatly into the nation's decimal system of money and was heavily used for only a few years in both cases.

The first three-cent piece, of silver, arose from an event in far off California. In January 1848 James Marshall discovered gold at the huge Sutter ranch, creating the famed gold rush of 1848. Coupled with equally massive discoveries in Australia shortly afterward, the world markets were soon awash in gold bullion and coins. It had the unexpected effect of raising the price of silver, which in turn began to disrupt the monetary systems of several countries, including the United States.

By summer 1849 bullion dealers had begun to buy up American silver coins for melting and shipment to Europe, also experiencing a silver coin shortage. Only a relatively limited number of Spanish and Mexican small silver coins were left in the marketplace and these were often worn smooth and worth much less than their stated values.

In early 1850, at the same time as the marketplace was losing its silver coins, there arose a dispute over postal rates. In 1847, when the first official U.S. stamps had been introduced, the rate was five cents for letters (of one sheet) going up to 300 miles and 10 cents beyond that distance. Because even five cents was a goodly sum to many people in 1850, the public began to demand cheaper rates and this got the attention of Postmaster General Jacob Collamer.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Collamer and his staff drew up a proposed law that cut the rate to only three cents, regardless of distance. However, due to the rising shortage of small silver coins, Collamer contacted Treasury Secretary William M. Meredith to prepare a joint bill for congressional consideration, this one including a three-cent piece in silver.

The Treasury Department was well aware of the growing coin shortage, and the reasons for it, and opted for a debased silver coin only .750 fine rather than the usual .900. The idea was that a lesser amount of silver in such coins would not be subject to melting and export.

The situation suddenly became complicated by the death of President Zachary Taylor on July 9, 1850. Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency and within days both Meredith and Collamer were gone, replaced by Thomas Corwin and Nathan Hall, respectively. Plans were too far along to change, however, and the draft legislation was introduced into the House of Representatives on July 24.

The plan should have gone smoothly, especially for the new coin, but it did not work out that way. Congress soon found itself fighting over every nuance in the bill relating to postal charges. Proposed changes in the form of amendments promptly appeared and even the original idea to make the three-cent pieces carry a legal-tender limit of $30 was attacked.

Several months were spent in discussions but in mid-December Rep. George Ashmun produced a series of amendments that were less than helpful to the legislative process. He proposed a basic postal rate of two cents and accompanied this with a coin of the same value. Ashmun wanted the same alloy, which would have made for a very tiny coin indeed, but he also thought that his two-cent pieces should have unlimited legal tender.

In due course the Ashmun idea was scrapped, to be replaced by an even more bizarre idea, that of a 2.5-cent piece. Rep. Orsamus Matteson came up with this idea for a postal rate but he clearly had little knowledge of the marketplace or the coins that were needed. However, his legal-tender limit went back to the $30 figure.

By mid-February, after interminable wrangling over the postal rates, cooler heads prevailed and the original silver three-cent coin was accepted by nearly everyone but with a legal-tender value of only 30 cents. There were still arguments over postal rates for different classes of mailings (such as newspapers) but on the final day of the congressional session, March 3, a compromise bill was passed and promptly signed by Fillmore. The single sheet letter could now be mailed up to 3,000 miles for three cents.

Within a relatively short time Mint chief engraver James B. Longacre had prepared patterns that were soon approved by Treasury Secretary Corwin. At first coinage was slow - with only 5.5 million pieces in all of 1851 - as the Mint officers and workmen were unfamiliar with a coin this small and also of a different fineness. There was considerable trial and error with the .750-fine silver ingots until all went relatively smoothly toward the end of 1851. Demand was very strong and the Mint was often weeks behind in filling orders for the new coin.

At the same time as the Philadelphia Mint was struggling to turn the new coin out in quantity, dies were sent to the New Orleans Mint, where an additional 720,000 pieces came from their smallest coining press. This was the one and only time that a branch mint struck a three-cent piece of either alloy, silver or copper-nickel.

With the coin shortage growing worse by the month, Philadelphia Mint officials made every effort to meet the demand. In 1852 nearly 19 million pieces were made and more than 11 million in 1853 but in the latter case most were made early in the year. The reason for this fall off in coinage was the law of Feb. 21, 1853, which reduced the weights of the minor silver coins by about 6 percent.

The 1853 law also mandated that the silver three-cent piece join its brethren by using .900 fine silver. This, of course, meant a slight lowering of the weight. Because of this minor change, Longacre prepared new dies with three outlines to the obverse star. Olive branches were also added to the reverse, giving the coin a better appearance. (There was a minor revision of the artwork in 1859, resulting in two outlines to the star.)

Mintages were low in 1854 and 1855, due to pressure for coinage of the other silver denominations but recovered to about 1 million pieces each year from 1856 to 1858. This recovery was not due to any real demand, however, and was merely the result of Mint Director James Ross Snowden bending the law to allow him to strike more silver coins than were needed by the economy.

Snowden is believed to have coined the name "trime" for the silver three-cent piece as a handy way of keeping track of it. It seems not to have caught on with the public, though modern collectors find it useful.

With the coming of the Civil War, in April 1861, the Treasury made a strong effort to keep silver coins in the marketplace. More than 800,000 trimes were made in 1861 and 1862, but in the end all was in vain. In June 1862 nearly all silver coins were hoarded or exported but the silver three-cent did hang on a bit longer, perhaps because the public thought they were still debased, as in 1851-1853. By the fall of 1862, however, even the trime was gone.

The trime never again circulated in the United States and for the next several years - until the trime was abolished in 1873 - only a few thousand pieces, including proofs for collectors, were made each year. Most of the non-proofs were meant for settling gold deposits at the Philadelphia Mint and never saw the marketplace.

With the disappearance of the silver coins the Treasury resorted to paper money with denominations as low as three cents. From the fall of 1862 until April 1864 the only federal coin seen in use was the copper-nickel Indian Head cent but even that lowly coin came under pressure from hoarders during 1863.

Mint Director James Pollock soon came to realize that the copper-nickel alloy for the cent had to go, and he suggested in the fall of 1863 that cents be made out of bronze - a combination of copper, tin, and zinc. It was an excellent idea but ran afoul of nickel magnate Joseph Wharton, who owned the only operating mine in the United States, near Lancaster, Pa. Wharton saw a lucrative contract going up in flames and called in every political IOU he could muster to defeat the bronze coinage idea. (Pollock had also suggested a two-cent piece in the same metal.) Wharton's strong opposition was so effective that the bill to create bronze coinage was bottled up for several weeks. Pollock came to feel that Wharton would prevail, so he tried compromise but the nickel magnate was not interested; he should have negotiated because the tide soon ran the other way.

Union military victories were few and far between during the late winter of 1863-1864 and President Lincoln was seriously concerned about his chances of being re-elected. Putting coins into the hands of a public long without them was a good move, not only politically but for the marketplace as well. In early April 1864 Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase threw the full weight of the administration behind Pollock's bill and it was enacted on April 22, 1864. Wharton had lost, for the moment.

Within a matter of months Wharton had come up with the idea of a three-cent piece of copper-nickel, using an alloy of three-quarters copper and one-quarter nickel. He suggested a weight of 30 grains (1.94 grams), more than twice as heavy as the trime and therefore much easier for the public to handle.

Wharton's allies in the House of Representatives introduced the necessary draft legislation for a copper-nickel three-cent piece in early 1865. Although everyone realized that the coin was little better than a disguised subsidy for the Pennsylvania nickel mine, the public genuinely wanted more coins and also wanted an end to the hated "shinplasters," the popular name for paper money with values less than one dollar.

On March 3 Lincoln signed the bill, which also provided that no more of the three-cent notes would be issued once coinage had begun of the new three-cent coin. Within a relatively short time coinage of the "trickel" had commenced and was very popular with the public. They were in fact at first called "nickels" after the their metal and color.

(It is little known to most collectors, but the nickel three-cent coin of 1865 was not the first such piece used by the public. In 1837 Lewis Feuchtwanger struck one-cent and three-cent tokens made of German silver - a combination of copper, nickel, and zinc - for use by the public and had also tried, without success, to interest Congress in the idea.)

More than 11 million trickels were struck in 1865 and the public could not seem to get enough of them. It was now the most important coin in daily use in the North, although in far-off California gold and silver coins did continue in use. This heavy coinage of the new denomination continued into early 1866 but slowly let up as the demand began to be met.

The nickel three-cent piece suffered a serious blow in May 1866 when Wharton pushed through yet another coinage bill for his nickel mine. This time it was for a five-cent coin in the same alloy, though proportionally heavier at 77.16 grains (5 grams) rather than the 50 grains it would have been otherwise.

Despite this new competition for the public's interest, the trickel held its own for several years, though the coinage levels after 1865 were usually well below those of the nickel. Beginning in 1871 the coinage of nickel three-cent became erratic although in 1873 there was a strong mintage of nearly 1.2 million pieces. Another 800,000 were made in 1874 and from then on it was downhill with the exception of just one year, 1881.

Beginning in the summer of 1873 the government began putting minor silver coins (dimes, quarters, and half dollars) back into daily use and by 1874 the new coinage had reached nearly every part of the country. This lessened the need for the trickels and in 1876 only 162,000 were coined.

The heavy silver coinages of the 1870s meant that demand was dropping for the three minor coins (cent, three cents and five cents) and in 1877 only a few hundred thousand cent pieces were made. In 1877 and 1878 for the nickel three-cent piece and the nickel, the sole mintages were in proof for collectors.

Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden persuaded the Treasury to allow him to strike limited numbers of three- and five-cent coins in 1879 and 1880, but these were mostly meant as presents for small children at Christmas or birthdays.

For some presently unknown reason there was an unexpectedly heavy coinage of the trickel in 1881 of 1.1 million pieces, compared to only about 70,000 of the five-cent version. It may be that this was connected to a proposed postal rate or some other cause but whatever the reason, the need seems to have evaporated and coinages were minimal for the next several years. In 1886 only proof coins were struck but the other years did see limited uncirculated coinages.

After 1881 successive Mint directors lobbied for an end to the nickel three-cent coinage as well as the gold $3 and $1 coins. None of these three denominations was used widely by the public and Mint officials saw little need to keep collectors supplied with an endless run of dates.

The last coinage of the trickel came in 1889 with more than 20,000 business strikes and more than 3,400 proof pieces. There was no particular demand in 1889 and the coinages in this case were meant in part as Mint trading stock for the future. There was no mintage in 1890 even though the law abolishing the three-cent piece was not signed by President Benjamin Harrison until Sept. 26, 1890.

The nickel three-cent coins continued to circulate in ever diminishing numbers and by the early 1900s were rarely to be seen. After that, only the collector was left to appreciate what once was the coin of the realm.


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