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Classic US Coins: The Short-Lived Two Cent Piece

The Two Cent Piece by Kathleen DuncanPinnacle Rarities ……

The Two Cent piece designed by James Longacre was struck for a mere 10 years from 1864 until 1873. The design made a singular and enduring contribution to the nation’s history by introducing the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to coinage for the first time. The motto and the coin itself were both direct results of the Civil War when coinage shortages were a dire problem, and the nation was experiencing a strong religious passion.

By the end of 1862, with the war in its 21st month, virtually all coinage had vanished from circulation. Hoarders, speculators, and frightened Americans set aside every coin they could get their hands on including base-metal issues. Inventive entrepreneurs created cent-sized bronze tokens which promised redemption in goods, services, or money. These “Civil War tokens” soon gained broad acceptance as a useful money substitute.

The tokens’ success provided proof that Americans would tolerate money (or money substitutes) with little intrinsic value. The United States Mint took notice and began preparing a modified one-cent piece modeled after the tokens. This cent retained the popular Indian Head design but on a slim, bronze planchet instead of the thick copper-nickel one then in use. At the same time, Mint officials started giving serious thought to a Two Cent piece of similar composition in order to alleviate the coin shortage even faster.

On December 8, 1863, Mint Director James Pollock wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase recommending the issuance of a Two Cent piece in French bronze, the same alloy chosen for the slimmer Indian cent. Pollock submitted two proposed designs, both by Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, the designer of the Indian cent. One bore the head of George Washington; the other depicted a shield and arrows. Pollock and Chase both favored the latter.

Up until then, U.S. coinage had carried no reference to a supreme being. But that was about to change, thanks largely to the increased religious sentiment brought about by the Civil War. The motto first appeared in Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. The fourth verse includes the line: “And this be our motto-“In God is our trust!” This poem would later be adopted as the United States’ national anthem under the name “The Star-Spangled Banner.” IN GOD WE TRUST is displayed on a ribbon above the shield on the obverse. The date appears directly below the shield. The reverse bears a wreath surrounding “2 CENTS” and encircled by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

The Two Cent piece was authorized as part of the Mint Act of April 22, 1864. In 1864, a few thousand business strikes were struck from a prototype Master Hub with the obverse displaying the motto in small letters. A new hub featuring large letters was used to make dies for the majority of the 1864 production and for all subsequent dates in the series. The Small Motto is one of two keys in the series along with the low-mintage 1872. 1864 Small Motto coins are scarce in all grades and particularly elusive in full Red condition. They top out at MS66RD with six graded at PCGS. In the Proof run, the 1864 Small Motto is a major rarity, with a mintage of only 30 coins. Gem examples are worth six figures.

Conversely, the 1864 Large Motto business strike is the most common issue and a perfect choice for a type coin. All issues in the series, however, become rare in MS67RD, with only four 1864 Large Motto examples having achieved that grade at PCGS. 1864 Large Mottos in Proof are scarce, with an estimated mintage of only 100 and grades that essentially top out at PR65RD, although a single PR66RD is reported at PCGS.

Around 13.64 million Two Cent pieces were struck in 1865, down slightly from the nearly 20 million produced in 1864. 1865s are relatively common up to and including MS66RDs, but only three MS67RDs have been graded by PCGS. There are two major varieties for the date, the Plain 5 and the Fancy 5. The tip of the 5 is either flat or curved upward respectively. Both appear to be of similar rarity. Keep in mind that PCGS has only been designating the two varieties for a few years, so most of the graded 1865s are not attributed to either variety. Proofs are all of the Plain 5 variety. Exact Proof production for the series is unknown after 1864 since Mint employees did not begin recording the number of Proof minor issues produced until 1878, but estimates range from a low of 500 for the 1865 to a high of 1,000 for the 1870.

The 1866 is the third most common date with an approximate mintage of three million. The finest graded examples are three in PCGS MS66+RD. Coins in full Red condition above MS65 are rare.

1867 is roughly on par with 1866 with a mintage of just under three million. Two MS66+RDs are tied for finest graded honors at PCGS. As with the 1866, examples grading above Gem are rare with a Red designation. Probably no more than a few hundred examples have survived in all grades combined of the elusive 1867 Doubled Die Obverse. The doubling is very noticeable on “In God We Trust” as well as the arrows and the leaves on the left side of the wreath. Unfortunately, the date is not affected. All uncirculated DDO examples are scarce and only 10 Gem examples exist across all color designations with the only example finer being a single MS66RB.

1868 saw similar production to 1867 with slightly less than three million. While relatively easy to locate in Red-Brown up through Gem condition, MS65RD examples are rare and only seven have received an MS66RD at PCGS with just a single MS67RD topping out the census.

In 1869, the mintage was reduced by nearly half to slightly over 1.5 million. Examples are available up to MS65RD with anything finer rare. PCGS reports three in MS66RD, one MS66+RD, and, surprisingly, three in MS67RD.

Beginning in 1870, mintages dropped below the one million mark, and Two Cent issues from the 1870s are all rarer than their 1860s counterparts. For the 1870, PCGS reports just four examples grading higher than MS65RD, two MS65+RDs, one MS66RD, and one MS66+RD.

Although the 1871 has a slightly lower mintage than the 1870, apparently a few more have survived above the Gem level with two in MS65+RD, eight in MS66RD, one in MS66+RD, and a single MS67RD.

The 1872 is the undisputed key to this short-lived series. Its mintage of only 65,000 is less than 10% of the next lowest mintage of 721,250 for the 1871. It’s scarce in any uncirculated condition, even within the Brown color designation. Reds are rare, and any Red coin will be valued in the five figures, with PCGS reporting three in MS66RD, one MS66+RD, and a single MS67RD at the top of the census. Interestingly, neither of the two finest graded examples have appeared in public auction. Proof dies were used exclusively for both Proofs and business strikes this year.

All 1873 Two Cent pieces were coined as Proofs since this denomination was slated for retirement early that year being abolished by the Mint Act of 1873. The original variety is known as the Closed 3. While not really closed, it was determined the 3 closely resembled an “8”. The mintage of this date has been reconstructed as 600 pieces having the Closed 3 variety and 500 with the Open 3, plus 46 additional pieces of undetermined variety struck for the minor Proof sets.

Starved for coinage of any kind, Americans initially embraced the Two Cent piece. Acceptance and mintage levels fell off dramatically after the war, partially due to the production of the Three Cent Nickel beginning in 1865 and the Shield Nickel in 1866. Fewer than 3.2 million Two Cent pieces were struck in 1866 and by 1870 production dropped below the one million mark. The mint issued only 65,000 pieces for circulation in 1872. Finally, in 1873, only Proofs were produced. Large quantities of Two Cent pieces were redeemed by the government in the 1870s and after. Approximately 17,000,000 of the 45,600,000 examples issued had been repurchased by the Treasury by 1909. These were melted and recoined.

Due to its short duration, a Two Cent piece collection is relatively easy to complete. A basic set of the circulations strikes includes one of each of the nine dates. A classic set adds the rare 1864 Small Motto. And for a true challenge, the complete set includes both 1864 varieties, both 1865 varieties, and the uber-rare 1867 Double Die obverse. The Proof set is sometimes assembled with 10 coins (one of each date), 11 coins (both varieties of the 1873), or 12 coins (including the extremely rare 1864 Small Motto). Both business strikes and Proof sets can be assembled in Brown, Red & Brown, Red, or a combination of these, allowing for a wide range of interesting options from which collectors may choose.

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Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

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