The Three-Cent Nickel

One of America's most unusual coins has been the three cent nickel which helped change the way people think about money.

Pocket change has a whole different meaning than it once did to Americans. While today, coins are often looked on as a nuisance after paying for a croissant, in the 1800s, coins were considered to be a convenient way for people to carry around their precious metals. In times of crisis, the supply of metal would inevitably tighten and Americans fearful of the intrinsic value of paper money would begin hording coins. And no American crisis drove coins out of circulation like the Civil War.

During the Civil War frightened folks stuffed so many coins into the cracks of their floorboards that metal money virtually disappeared. Many substitutes were tried: private tokens, encased postage, postal currency and fractional currency. The fractional currency were the most ubiquitous emergency money and far and away the most reviled of the alternatives. These were small scraps of paper that wore out quickly, became ragged and dirty, and worst of all, were easily lost.

In 1864, United States Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed yet another three-cent postal currency to try and get the Union through the war which continued to drag on. Rather than endure one more piece of flimsy paper, Congress rallied around nickel. There had been a strong faction in American politics lobbying against the introduction of nickel into the ranks of metals used for American coins, but this latest proposal broke down even the staunchest anti-nickel proponents. Representative John Kasson, the most vocal of nickel bashers, even introduced the bill into Congress authorizing the striking of a new three cent nickel (the composition was actually three-quarters copper and one-quarter nickel). The bill passed in an all-night session on Capitol Hill on March 3, 1865.

The new nickel was not the first American coin to be worth three cents. To stop a run on the price of silver after the discovery of gold in 1848, Congress began minting a silver three-cent piece. So Americans were already familiar with the denomination, especially since so many of the silver pieces were stashed in peopleÕs homes that the coin had all but disappeared from the commercial landscape.

The design for the new coin was created by Chief Engraver James Longacre, an accomplished portrait painter but an unimaginative designer of allegorical figures which gave his coins a dullish, two-dimensional quality. For the three cent nickel, Longacre chose a head of Liberty wearing a beaded coronet encircled by the words Ã'United States of AmericaÃ" and the date. On the reverse was a large Roman numeral III signifying the denomination, surrounded by a laurel wreath. The head of Liberty created by Longacre can be considered to be a representative image of Greco-Roman traditions embraced during the 1800s. The design would remain unchanged for the entire 25 years the coin would remain in circulation in America.

The three cent nickel was an immediate hit with the public when it appeared in large numbers in 1865. It was a welcome replacement for the hated fractional currency and was useful for purchasing postage stamps (three cents being the cost of a stamp at the time). The Ã'shinplasters,Ã" as the fractional currency was called, quickly vanished from the tills and bank drawers of America.

The simple-designed three cent nickel was never intended to be a permanent brother of the gold and silver coins of the world. Mint Director James Pollock welcomed the nickel coin as a replacement for the paper money and a useful substitute until such time as the rebuilding United States could once again mint silver three cent coins. But the silver coin was discontinued first, in 1873, leaving the humble nickel to carry on until the end of its Congressional mandate in 1889.

By this time people had forgotten the days of ragged scraps of currency and the postal rates had changed as well. There was no real answer to the question as to why the three cent nickel was needed. Its chance for a renewal and a continued life in AmericaÕs coinage system died an unmourned death with the Act of September 26, 1890. Millions of three cent nickels were returned to the mint, melted down and recoined as Liberty nickels.

From 1865 until 1889, 31,378,826 three cent nickels were struck at the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Today, the coin is of interest mostly to type collectors, that branch of the hobby devoted to amassing one of every American coin ever made. For those seeking a valuable three cent nickel the dates to seek are 1877 and 1878. During these two years the coins minted were proof-only and did not enter general circulation. There were only 510 thee cent nickels struck in 1877 and 2,350 coins minted in 1878. Some of the coins in the 1880s, after the three cent nickels lost their popularity, are also worth a little extra.

Other than that, the three cent nickel remains a curiosity, an odd denomination in American numismatic history that served a brief purpose and helped change the thinking of consumers who once believed their coins must be worth as much as the precious metal in them.

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