Three Cent Coin

America's three-cent silver coin, the smallest United States silver coin ever, was created in part to pay for the cost of a stamp.

The way Americans regard the loose coins in their pockets has changed dramatically over the decades. Today a nickel or a quarter is simply a representation of some amount of money less than a dollar. The coin itself has no intrinsic value.

Not so 150 years ago. Everyday Americans considered coins to be convenient ways of carrying around their precious metals. People did not tolerate coins that, when the metal was melted down, were worth less than the face value of the coin. They especially distrusted paper money, the epitome of what is known as fiat money, or money that merely represents a value. It was this trepidation that gave birth to America's first three-cent coin.

The California Gold Rush in 1848 stuffed America's coffers with gold bullion and the price of gold plummeted. Consequently, the price of silver began to rise. Soon the silver in silver coins was worth more than the face value of the coins. People began hoarding all the silver coins they could get their hands on to melt the metal down. As the existing silver coins disappeared the value of silver soared even higher. By 1851, there were scarcely any silver coins to be found anywhere in America.

This was especially troubling to merchants who needed to make small change to customers. The five-cent coin of the time was made of silver and not available so transactions could only be completed with copper cents, which were large and cumbersome.

About the same time, the Federal government was in the process of reducing the cost for mailing a letter from five cents to three cents. Using the argument that people would find it useful to have a coin with which to buy a stamp (history does not tell us if people preferred to go to the post office to buy stamps one at a time in the 1850s), Senator Daniel Stevens Dickinson of New York proposed a three-cent coin be minted. Further, it was proposed that the new coin be made of an alloy of 75% silver and 25% copper that would have enough precious silver to be thought of as "real money" but not enough to be worth melting down. The three-cent coin was approved into law on March 3, 1851.

The new three-cent coin was the smallest United States silver coin ever made. Its small size made designing the coin problematic and the head engraver of the United States Mint, James Barton Longacre, created a shield superimposed on a six-pointed star for the front of the three-cent coin and a Roman numeral "III" for the back.

At first the "trime," as the three-cent coin was often called, was popular with the public. But the silver-copper alloy had a maddening predisposition to discolor and turn dark. The tiny 14-millimeter coin soon became known as "fish scales."

Congress was not through tinkering with America's coin supply. In 1853 the silver content of the half dollar, quarter, dime and half-dime were all reduced and these coins began reappearing on American streets. The three-cent coin gradually fell out of favor and it was minted for the last time in 1873. It remains the only American coin ever minted to buy a stamp.

© High Speed Ventures 2011