Did the U.S. ever mint a three cent coin?

Ken Marich

The answer is yes. In fact, the mint issued two different three cent coins: the three cent silver (1851 to 1873) and the three cent nickel (1865 to 1889). Following the 1848 gold rush at Sutter’s Mill, the Forty-Niners mined vast amounts of gold that had an impact on U.S. coinage. The massive quantities of gold depressed its metal value in relationship to the value of silver leading to widespread hoarding of silver coins. It then became profitable to hoard and melt silver coins as they were worth more as metal than money. By 1850, few silver coins remained in circulation, creating a problem for merchants and their customers. The only coins that were available for making change in amounts for less than a dollar were the large copper cents and half-cents that were heavy and inconvenient. The half-dime existed but they were silver and thus hoarded. Also during this time, the federal government was considering lowering the postage rate from five cents to three cents. Thus it seemed logical to Congress that a three cent coin was the answer and the Coin Act of March 3, 1851, was passed.

The three cent silver coin was designed by James B. Longacre and first minted in 1851. The coin had a metal composition of 75% silver and 25% copper to discourage hoarding and melting. It was the lightest coin ever minted by the U.S. and was called a “trime.” The obverse shows a six sided star and the reverse the Roman numeral III. The three cent coin circulated widely and did facilitate the easy purchase of three cent stamps but had some shortcomings. It was easy to lose and discolored quickly and thus got the derogatory nickname of “fishscales.” Mintages were high for the first three years (5M to 18M) then were reduced significantly. During the Civil War (1861 to 1865) hoarding of all metal coins flourished. Paper fractional currency (3, 5, 10 cents) was introduced but was not liked. It got the nickname “shinplasters.”

In 1865 the new three cent nickel was introduced. Its composition was 75% copper and 25% nickel to help reduce hoarding. It was immediately popular due to the larger size, new design and its availability with over 11 million minted the first year. The three cent nickel was also designed by Longacre. The obverse featured the head of Liberty and the reverse design shows a Roman numeral III surrounded by a wreath. The nickel three cent coins were minted between 1865 and 1889 with over 31 million coins being struck at the Philadelphia Mint. Finally in 1889 the postage rate increased and the need for a three cent coin ended with the passage of the Coin Act of September 1890. The three cent coins are collector’s items and most of the dates are available. In fine condition the silver or nickel coins range from $25 to $400 each.

The SaddleBrooke Coin Club meets the second Thursday of each month from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. in the Sonoran Room at MountainView Clubhouse. More information call Ken at 825-1709.