Three Cent Silver – Three Cent Silver, Type 1, 1851-1853

Called a trime in some Treasury Department records, the three cent silver coin was the smallest ever issued by the U.S. in terms of weight and thickness. Initially proposed in 1849, and again in 1850 in conjunction with a plan to reduce postal rates from five to three cents, production was finally authorized in 1851. This silver coin was produced in response to the need for small denomination, precious metal coins caused, somewhat counter-intuitively, by a shortage of silver following the discovery of gold in California and other locations in the late 1840s. As gold became more common, that metal’s price became depressed relative to silver, silver prices rose, and silver coins were removed from circulation and melted; they were worth more as bullion than the face value of the coin. The composition of the trime was designed to satisfy the need for sub-dollar coins in commerce, with enough silver to be considered a precious-metal coin but not so much that they too would be melted.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The new coin met all intended purposes for which it was designed and was initially well-received. However, two shortcomings eventually combined to cause the coin to lose favor. First. the coins were so small that they were easily lost, not a trivial matter at the time for even such a small denomination. Second, the higher base metal content meant they easily discolored to a somewhat dirty appearance, earning them the sobriquet of “fish scales”. Three cent silvers circulated extensively from 1851 through 1861, until the start of the Civil War resulted in the hoarding of virtually all gold and silver coins. Out of circulation since the start of the War, and supplanted somewhat by the three-cent nickel introduced in 1865, the trime was abolished by the Mint Act of 1873 (although proof coins were produced in that year). Nearly all three cent silvers were minted at Philadelphia, with the 1851-O issue from New Orleans the only branch mint issue of the entire series.

The obverse of Type 1 coins displays the words “United States of America” around the periphery of the field, with the date centered at the bottom. In the center is a national shield superimposed on a six-pointed star, sometimes labeled a Òsmall starÓ to differentiate the design from Type 2 and Type 3 coins. Slight ridges radiate from the shield to each point of the star, giving the star a beveled appearance. The reverse has thirteen equally spaced six-pointed stars around the periphery of the field. The center displays a stylized, beaded letter “C”, almost Arabic in style, which encloses the Roman numeral three; thus identifying the denomination as three cents. The New Orleans mint mark is to the right of the field, just outside the opening of the “C”.

All Type 1 three cent silver coins are relatively affordable, and it’s possible to assemble an gem set on a moderate budget. The most expensive is the 1851-O, considered a key date of the series, which tracks at three to four times the price of the Philadelphia products. Of the repunched varieties the 1852 repunched/inverted date has a seven to eight times premium over regular Philadelphia coins, and is not listed in population/census reports above low mint state condition. Other repunched varieties are also relatively uncommon in population/census tallies. Type 1 proofs are rare (thus expensive) with only about twelve identified for all three years: ten in 1851, one each for the 1851-O and 1852, and none known for 1853.


Designer: James Barton Longacre
Mintage: 36,230,900 circulation; 12 proof (estimated)
Denomintion: Three cents (3/100)
Diameter: ±14 mm, plain edge
Metal content: 75% silver, 25% copper
Weight: 0.80 grams
Varieties: Not extensively studied, but a few repunched dates are known, including an interesting 1852 version with a 1 over an inverted 2.

Additional Resources :

Coin Encyclopedia:
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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