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Troubled Trime Times
By Tom LaMarre

It was an unusual denomination and an unusual coin, and at first it looked as if the three-cent piece would be a big success. But fading popularity and a reduction in the postage rate contributed to its demise. Not even a second version in a different alloy could save the denomination.

The June 20, 1850, issue of the Fort Wayne Times reported that a bill had been introduced for the creation of three-cent pieces, to be composed of three-fourths silver and one-fourth copper."

The original three-cent piece was supposed to make it more convenient to buy a three-cent stamp. The April 21, 1851, issue of the Republican Compiler said, "The three-cent pieces authorized by the recent law reducing the postage on letters are now being coined at the Philadelphia Mint."

Engraver James Longacre put a large star with a shield on the obverse and a "C" and Roman numeral "III" on the reverse to indicate the denomination. The July 21, 1851, issue of the Huron Reflector, published in Norwalk, Ohio, said the editor of the Lowell Patriot "admires the three-cent coin very much." On the other hand, the June 1851 issue of the New Bedford Mercury described the new three-cent piece as "shabby" and "ill-conceived."

Either way, three-cent pieces were a convenience, and not just for buying stamps. The New York Times said a three-cent piece would buy a "good enough" cigar, but it could also pay for a drink in a saloon or a ride on a municipal railroad.

The April 3, 1851, issue of the Daily Sanduskian said, "The die for the three-cent piece ordered to be coined by the last Congress has been finished and coinage will be proceeded with at once."

More than 6 million three-cent pieces were struck in 1851, including the only examples from the New Orleans Mint. In 1852, production exceeded 18 million. As the Nov. 19, 1852, issue of the Davenport, Iowa, Democratic Banner put it, "The manufacture of three-cent pieces has been immense." Today a Good-4 1851 or 1852 three-cent piece is valued at $25.

By the mid-1850s, production had fallen drastically. The July 28, 1855, issue of the Mountain Democrat, published in Placerville, Calif., reported, "A letter from Washington says that the Treasury is now burdened with the custody of small change, half dollars to three-cent pieces."

Production of silver three-cent pieces dropped to insignificant levels after a copper-nickel version made its debut. "A law was passed during the closing hours of the late Congress, to authorize the coinage of three-cent pieces, to be composed of copper and nickel," the March 25, 1865, issue of The Portsmouth (Ohio) Times reported. Designed by Longacre, the new coin had a Liberty head obverse and "III" on the reverse.

The silver three-cent piece went out of production in 1873. The copper-nickel three-cent piece lingered a while longer, but 1881 was the last year in which more than 1 million were struck. A Fine-12 1881 three-cent piece is valued at $19, according to Coin Prices.

Three-cent coins had come into existence with a three-cent postage rate. In September 1883, with the rate about to end, the New York Times said the coin should "follow the leader into permanent retirement." Production ended in 1889.


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