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Silver Three Cent Coins: The Lightest American Money

By Bullion Shark LLC ……
Following the California Gold Rush of 1848, the ratio between silver and gold that had stood at 16:1 for so long was upset, with large quantities of gold entering the American market. This helped push up the prices of other metals, especially silver, and so the melt value of circulating coins began to exceed their face value. This, then, led to hoarding, and bullion merchants acquired as many silver coins as they could, which resulted in a shortage of the coins the public needed for commerce.

To address this situation, the U.S. Congress explored various options, including the creation of a new denomination: a three-cent piece struck from silver that was of lower than the normal purity of .900 and alloyed to copper. This mixture was known as billon, which refers to an alloy combining a precious metal and a base metal.

Legislation was introduced to create such coins, but nothing came of it apart from the striking of pattern pieces in 1849-1850. But then the government lowered the postage rate for first-class mail from five to three cents, providing a catalyst for the introduction of a three-cent coin. The large copper cents of the time, if used to purchase postage, were much bulkier than a three-cent piece, which also provided a denomination between a cent and a half dime at a time when many of the daily goods the public needed were priced in that range.

In March 1851, President Millard Fillmore signed a bill into law that created what came to be known as the “trime”. The silver fineness of those coins was .750 — which is the only time in American numismatic history that such a fineness was used.

Silver Three Cent Coins: The Lightest American Money

There was a great demand for the new coin because of the coin shortage, and the trime was very useful for purchasing necessities. But it was very light (0.75 grams, or a third of the weight of a dime) and paper-thin, which made handling it awkward. In fact, the trime is the lightest American coin ever made.

The coin was popular with the public, struck in the tens of millions in the early years and saved in large numbers as the first of a new type of coin. But the term “trime” was not initially popular with the public, which instead called them “fish scales”. The term became popular only in the late 20th century when it was revived, as Q. David Bowers explains in his Guide Book of United States Coins.

Trime Design Types

There are three design types. Type or variety 1 was minted from 1851 to 1853 and featured on its obverse a six-pointed star with a shield in the center surrounded by inscriptions. The star has a single outline. Its reverse features the Roman number for “3”. This type is common even today in circulated grades, but true Gems and especially Proof coins are very rare.

Silver Three Cent Coins: The Lightest American MoneyIn 1854, the silver purity was increased to the standard .900, the weight of the coin was reduced from 12.375 grains to 11.52 grains, and the design was changed by adding a raised border to the obverse and three lines to the star outline to distinguish it from the earlier coins. On the reverse, an olive branch was also added above the denomination and a bundle of arrows below it.

This Type 2 was minted until 1858, and it is similar to the first type in terms of the circulated coins being more common than the Proofs. However, due to technical problems during production, it tends to be weakly struck.

In 1859, the extra lines around the star were removed, creating Type 3. The lettering was made more refined on this version, which also struck up better due to improvements to the dies. This type was issued all the way until 1873, but mintages began to decline over that period. That was largely due to the introduction in 1865 of the nickel three-cent coin issued until 1889, and then in 1866 of the nickel five-cent coin, which lessened demand for the three-cent silver coin.

Both coins made of nickel were created in response to the lack of silver and gold coinage at the time of the Civil War because they were hoarded.

And the United States Mint destroyed almost the entire mintage of circulation versions of this type issued from 1863 to 1872 and many of the 1872 and 1873 Proofs (when no circulation coins were issued). For these reasons, the Proofs are more readily obtainable for this version than the circulation strikes.

In 1873, Congress revised its coinage laws to include abolishing the trime.

Collecting the Silver Three Cent

The trime series is easier to collect by date than many classic U.S. coin series with certain exceptions such as those scarce Type 3 coins.

All were struck at the mint in Philadelphia – with the exception of the 1851-O, whose mintage is a mere 720,000 and which today is worth about three times what the more common earlier dates are, though still reasonable at $325 for an XF.

There are no great rarities to the series, but for a complete set be prepared to pay about $1,000 for an XF of all the coins issued from 1863 through the end of the series with 1868 and 1872 running $2,000 in that grade. Those more pricey coins push the cost of a full set to about $15,000 in that grade. But a nice example of each of the three design types is a good alternative for the type collector or someone on a budget.

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Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman (2008)

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman (2005)

Julian, R.W. “The Trime”, FUN Topics Spring 2022. pp 14-16.

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