Three Cent Silver – by Kathleen Duncan – Pinnacle Rarities
Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the “Forty-Niners” and their followers mined enormous quantities of gold. These massive new supplies depressed gold’s value in relation to silver, leading to widespread hoarding and melting of silver coinage which became worth more than face value. Merchants and their customers were left without enough coinage to conduct their transactions. The only coins available for making change in amounts less than a dollar were copper large cents and half cents, which most people found extremely inconvenient. Adding further to the case for a new three cent denomination, in 1851 postal rates were dropped from five to three cents.
The Type 1 Three Cent Silvers (also known as trimes) were produced from 1851 until 1853. They were made from a low-grade alloy containing 25% copper and 75% silver. The design, by James Longacre, consists of a six-pointed star with the Union shield in its center. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the date are around the border. The reverse depicts thirteen stars surrounding a C, surrounding a Roman numeral III. This was the first circulating U.S. coin without a depiction of Miss Liberty.
Judged by the standards of its day, Three Cent Silvers of this first type were made in large numbers. The Mint produced 36,230,900 examples during the coin’s initial three year run. More than half were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1852, when the output topped 18.6 million. The only branch-mint issue for the entire series is 1851-O, the scarcest Type 1 coin, with a mintage of 720,000 pieces.
In 1853, Congress passed legislation reducing the weight (and thus the silver content) of the half dollar, quarter, dime and half dime. This had the desired effect of discouraging further hoarding/melting and re-establishing all these denominations in circulation. That same year, an increase in the fineness of the three-cent piece up to 90% was authorized, bringing it in line with the other silver coins. A simultaneous one-twentieth-of-a-gram cutback in its weight insured melting unprofitable. These Type 2 three-cent pieces didn’t appear until 1854. They have two extra outer rims around the star for a total of three. The reverse was also modified to show a bunch of arrows below and an olive branch above the Roman numeral III.
In 1859, further tinkering occurred to correct striking problems, and from then through the end of the three cent series in 1873 the Type 3 issue had only two rims around the star. (The Type 2 has three rims and the Type 3 has two rims.) The production of Three Cent Silvers during this period serves to illustrate the boom and bust cycle of U.S. coinage. From 1859 through 1862, the mintage of these small silver coins averaged 373,000 coins annually. For the eleven years afterward, annual mintages plummeted to an average of only 8,171 coins.
When silver three cent pieces were abolished by the Mint Act of 1873 few people noticed. The coins had not been seen in circulation since the early days of the Civil War, and they had become redundant to the nation’s coinage needs when the Three Cent Nickel was successfully introduced in 1865. The fact that they played an important role in commerce in the 1850s and early 1860s was forgotten. Today, collectors appreciate the series for its unique design and for the magnificent toning often encountered on high-grade examples.