One Every Collector Can Do
By Paul M. Green
You get more
than your two-cents’ worth with a collection of
two-cent pieces as this lesser known
denomination has truly a fascinating story.
The best kept secret perhaps is the fact that
the two-cent piece is a collection almost
everyone can afford. When you consider the coins
you get and how they reflect on a most
interesting period in American history, the idea
of a two-cent piece collection seems like one
that should be much more popular than it is
This low profile is a benefit if you do attempt
a two-cent piece collection as right now you
will find that in assorted grades two-cent
pieces really are good values as well as
interesting coins to study.
One of the things you quickly learn with the
two-cent piece is that it is not a large
collection. As the denomination was produced
only at Philadelphia, that makes its roughly one
decade of production a limited group of coins,
but without branch mint issues which are
frequently tough from the period, it keeps the
cost of a complete set down.
That said, in that short period, the two-cent
piece gained a lasting place in numismatic
history while helping out in an emergency. Its
lasting place in history came not by design but
simply by timing as it would be the first coin
of the United States to have the motto IN GOD WE
TRUST when it was introduced in 1864 and at
least that part of the two-cent piece design
remains very much in place today.
Even though the two-cent piece did not turn out
to be as successful as some might have hoped,
the denomination ironically had been under
consideration for a long time before finally
being approved. It was probably a case where
having a large cent to compare to Britain’s
penny, a copper two-cent piece seemed natural to
some to compare to Britain’s copper tuppence.
At least in terms of the initial authorization
of denominations, the two-cent piece might have
seemed natural, but it was not included. It did
not, however, take long for someone to suggest
that the denomination should be considered as
there was a proposal in Congress in 1806 for a
two-cent piece with a copper and silver alloy.
It was an interesting idea, but the time was not
right for a couple of reasons.
The first problem with the timing was that the
United States Mint was simply not ready to take
on another denomination. It had only been just
two years earlier in 1804 when the production of
silver dollars and gold eagles had been
The reason was that there was a national coin
shortage and the Mint was spending too much of
its limited time and resources producing the two
largest denominations for speculators. The gold
coin was too heavy and the silver too light.
Money could be made gaming the system. Deposit
silver at the Mint, have it coined and then
trade the coins for the gold of the same face
value. Ship the gold abroad for melting and
start all over with the profits.
Simply suspending production of the gold eagle
and silver dollar did not solve all its problems
as the Mint still had limited capacity and it
would be a long time before the facility would
be able to make reasonable numbers of all the
denominations already authorized without taking
on any new ones.
The two-cent piece also presented a unique
problem in terms of its composition. The large
cent was already large and creating a copper
coin would produce a coin about the size of a
rock. Moreover, in 1806 copper supplies were far
from secure as the best supply of copper was
from England and things were not always smooth
politically with England so the supply could
easily be cut off.
Mixing in a little silver would reduce the
coin’s size, but silver supplies were not much
more reliable and with the technology of the day
the Mint Director expressed concern that the
proposed alloy might prove to be difficult to
work with especially if it was ever desired to
melt the coins down and extract the silver. That
concern seemed to be enough to put the idea on a
back burner for some time.
Over time, however, things did improve at least
in terms of the national coin shortage and the
Mint’s capacity. That was helped in 1830 when
gold was discovered in Georgia and North
Carolina and that resulted in the authorization
of new branch mints in Dahlonega, Ga.,
Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La. While
Dahlonega and Charlotte would only produce gold
coins, any added coin production would take
pressure off the main facility in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia had other help as in the mid-1830s.
A new steam press would arrive and it was
shortly afterward that the two-cent piece idea
was raised again as Mint Director Robert
Patterson whose father ironically had been the
Mint Director back in 1806 when the proposal for
the denomination first appeared had Christian
Gobrecht make patterns for the denomination.
Once again, however, the timing was not right
and nothing came of the patterns.
In fact it would take until 1849 before any new
denominations were authorized by the United
States and the two-cent piece was not the first.
Discovery of gold in California made the
authorization of a gold dollar and double eagle
seem like a relatively harmless decision and it
had the advantage of using some of the suddenly
more than ample gold supply.
The discovery of gold, however, caused a problem
in that the traditional gold-to-silver ratio was
upset yet again. The result was that it was
suddenly costing more than the face value simply
to produce silver coins. The Congress needed to
act but instead of lowering the amount of silver
slightly in all silver coins, what the Congress
did was to authorize a 75 percent silver
three-cent piece. The idea was basically a
stop-gap measure as the silver situation saw
widespread hoarding, but a 75 percent silver the
three-cent piece could at least help in a
growing national coin shortage.
Eventually the Congress was forced to act
reducing slightly the amount of silver in
regular issues in 1853 while at the same time
raising the silver in the three-cent piece to 90
percent. That was followed by the authorization
of a $3 gold piece with the basic reason once
again being that it would use gold and probably
cause no trouble. Like the three-cent piece, the
$3 gold piece would never really play a major
role in circulation when it first appeared in
1854 although there probably was some use of the
new denomination in the West.
While the Mint was able to produce enough coins
to justify new denominations, the matter of a
potential alloy for the two-cent piece still
stood in the way of any approval for it. That
problem took a step forward with a seemingly
unrelated development, which was the change to a
smaller copper-nickel cent in 1857.
The thinking behind the new smaller cent was
that the public would accept a coin whose
metallic value was worth significantly less than
its face value. At the time, that was radical
thinking as historically if anything, the coins
of the United States often had been slightly too
valuable in terms of their metal value. The
release and general acceptance of a cent worth
significantly less than the old copper large
cents opened the door to the idea of a two-cent
piece not made of silver or not of an
impractical size. That would prove to be crucial
in the eventual approval of a two-cent piece.
In 1857, however, when the new cent was
introduced, there was not a real need for a
two-cent piece, It had to wait but its time came
in 1864. The situation in 1864 was dire when it
came to coins. The Civil War had seen the public
on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line hoard
whatever coins they could find.
It was not just the expected gold and silver
coins that disappeared, but even copper-nickel
cents did as well. Suddenly there was no way to
make change in routine commercial transaction as
all the coins had been hoarded. Stamps were
tried and so were tokens. Fractional Currency
was authorized in the North and used although it
was never very popular. Dramatic steps needed to
be taken with the first being to change the
copper-nickel cent to bronze. That idea was
joined by the authorization of a two-cent piece
which would also be bronze.
With no more concern about the metal value of an
issue and with a national coin shortage,
especially in lower denominations, the idea of a
two-cent piece sailed through the Congress in
1864, putting pressure on the Mint to have a
design completed and the coin put into
While the new bronze cents were being produced
in large numbers, two-cent piece patterns were
tried and there were interesting ideas including
one that would have featured George Washington,
but eventually the shield design was approved.
A more interesting part of the process involved
the motto. A couple years earlier a Rev. M.R.
Watkinson of Pennsylvania had written the
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase
suggesting that some mention of God should be
added to the coins. Chase agreed and a number of
phrases were considered before a final decision
was made that the motto would be IN GOD WE
The two-cent piece would be the first
denomination where the motto could be added
without requiring special work and expense and
as a result it became the historic first coin of
the United States to carry the motto, which
remains on the coins to the present day.
There is no question that things were rushed
back in 1864 with the Mint trying desperately to
produce large numbers of copper coins simply to
keep commerce from bogging down totally.
When things are hurried sometimes corners are
cut and errors made. The success of the bronze
cent probably added fuel to the fire in terms of
pressure to get the new two-cent piece into
circulation in a hurry and that saw the 1864
two-cent piece emerge with both a large and
small motto, with the motto being much closer to
the lower banner edges on the large motto.
What apparently happened to produce both large
and the much tougher small motto is that in the
haste of the moment pattern dies were pressed
into service and they had the small motto. Their
total in the large mintage of 1864 was small
resulting in the small motto having prices of
$140 in G-4 as opposed to just $16.50 for the
large motto. In MS-60 the small motto is $1,125
as opposed to just $84 for the large motto while
an MS-65 small motto is $7,500 while a large
motto MS-65 is at $1,650.
There were also proofs and there the large motto
is tough at $3,950 in Proof-65, but the small
motto is a real rarity at $75,000, with the best
estimates suggesting that only 15 to 20 examples
may be known. That obscures the fact that the
large motto is a better two-cent piece proof,
too. It is more costly than any other two-cent
piece proof except the proof- only 1873.
The 1864 mintage would prove to be the largest
total for the two-cent piece. In 1865 the Mint
would turn some of its attention to other new
issues as well as more cents and the two-cent
piece total would drop to 13,640,000.
Almost every year that followed, the total
dropped lower and lower. The 1866 total was just
3,177,000 and the totals would continue to drop
until 1873 when the final year of production saw
a proof-only mintage as basically in less than a
decade the two-cent piece had helped to fill a
need at a time of crisis. The crisis passed and
the public didn’t really like it.
Many would be ultimately melted by the
government as a needed supply of copper. The
two-cent piece shows a relative lack of
collector interest. The result is many
reasonable prices. The dates from 1864-1869
whether having a mintage of nearly 20 million as
was the case for the 1864 or 1.5 million as was
the case with the 1869, trade in a very narrow
price range with G-4 examples ranging basically
from $16.50 to $20.
The lower mintage 1870 with a mintage of 861,250
is $31 while the still lower 1871 with a mintage
of 721,250 is just $43 in G-4.
In Mint State the prices are also fairly close.
The lower mintage 1870 and 1871 are $295 and
$285 in MS-60, respectively, but all the others
except for errors fall in a range from $84 to
$165. In MS-65 the prices move much higher.
The one exception to the relatively narrow range
of prices is the 1872 and there is good reason
as the 1872 had a mintage of just 65,000 pieces.
Such a mintage suggests that there was really no
need for additional two-cent pieces at the time
but it does make the 1872 a better date today
with a G-4 price of $325. In MS-60 the 1872
lists for $1,500 while in MS-65 it is currently
at $8,850. For those wanting a high grade but
lower cost option there is the possibility of a
proof as a Proof-65 lists for just $2,950.
The lower proof price might surprise many but it
is actually typical of assorted denominations at
the time as especially for a denomination made
only in Philadelphia like the two-cent piece it
was popular at the time to simply acquire a
proof from the Mint every year. While the
mintages might be low, the proofs were going
only to collectors and as a result they received
much better care and stood a much better chance
for survival to the present day.
In a number of cases the proof of a given date
is much more available than an MS-65.
The final two-cent piece was the proof-only
1873. The general belief is that the 1873 had a
mintage of 1,100 pieces divided roughly equally
between open and closed “3” varieties. It has
been suggested that the open “3” might be a
restrike, but that is unlikely as it was routine
in 1873 for all denominations to have open and
closed “3” varieties as officials when examining
the initial coins of 1873 decided that they did
not like the closed “3” appearance and that
resulted in a change to an open “3” even for the
two-cent piece that was only available as a
The two varieties are priced roughly the same
and that is not surprising as what was the most
likely division between the two would have
perhaps 500 of one and 600 of the other. In all
probability one variety appeared in the
so-called “nickel” set that featured just lower
denominations while the other variety was found
in the “silver” set that is thought to have had
the larger 600 coin mintage as that set included
the silver proof denominations as well. That
would make for a fairly even division between
open and closed “3” varieties as is expected and
as is seen in the numbers and prices today.
Today the 1873 stands as the most challenging
date in a two-cent piece collection, but one
which is not as expensive as might be expected
considering it was proof only. In Proof-65 it
lists for $4,250 and $5,500, respectively. For a
mintage of 1,100 combined, those are not high.
In fact the 1873 as well as the reasonable price
for a Proof-65 1872 does point to the very real
possibility of assembling a set in proof. The
1864 small motto would be a major stumbling
block, but a set with the large motto 1864 would
be possible and not as expensive as might be
expected. There are not many sets of United
States coins that can actually be completed in
proof, but the two-cent piece has to be on that
very short list.
Most collectors will stick to coins in the G-4
to AU-50 grades, at least initially, and then
Whatever approach you take to a two-cent piece
collection, there is little dispute that it is
an historic and very interesting denomination.
With reasonable prices today a collection can be
formed very quickly, giving you a real chance to
complete a collection from the Civil War era. As
an historic coin that really came into being
because of the problem created by the war, the
two-cent piece is not only a good collection but
a real piece of American history.