Three Cents Nickels – Three Cent Nickel 1865-1889

The three cent coin has an unusual history. It was proposed in 1851 both as a result of the decrease in postage rates from five cents to three and to answer the need for a small-denomination, easy-to-handle coin. The first Three cent coins we composed of silver (made up of three distinct types) however as a result of the Civil War, a new US Type coins would be created.

In times of crisis, the supply of precious metals would inevitably tighten. Americans fearful of the intrinsic value of paper money would then begin hording coins. And no American crisis drove coins out of circulation like the Civil War.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

These Civil War era silver shortages led to widespread hoarding of all silver coins including the Three Cent Silver, and most one and five cent coins as well. As a result metal money virtually disappeared. To address the lack of circulating coins various alternatives were tried, including encapsulated postage and privately issued coinage. The Treasury eventually settled on issuing fractional currency. These small denomination (1 to 50 cent) notes were never popular, as they were easy to lose and unwieldy in large amounts.

In 1864, United States Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase proposed yet another three-cent postal currency. There had been long standing opposition in Congress to the introduction of nickel into American coins, but the necesity of finding alternative metals for currency broke down even the staunchest anti-nickel proponents. Representative John Kasson, the most vocal of nickel opponents, introduced the bill 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 and the three cent nickel coin was born.

The design for the new coin was created by Chief Engraver James Longacre, an accomplished portrait painter but an unimaginative designer of allegorical figures. many feel this gave his coins a dull, two-dimensional quality.

This coin was composed of copper and nickel and was larger than the silver coin of the same denomination. The coin featured a Liberty head obverse and another Roman numeral ‘III’ reverse. The three cent nickel was never intended as a permanent issue, only as stopgap measure until the wartime hoarding ceased. However, production of the coin continued until 1889, 16 years after the three cent silver was discontinued.

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

One reason often given for the discontinuation of the three cent nickel piece in 1889 is that this coin and the dime (10 cent silver coin) were identical in diameter, and hence caused confusion with the advent of mechanical vending machines. Another factor may have been that in 1883 the letter postage rate dropped to 2 cents, thus removing the justification for this coin. However , the simple-designed three cent nickel was never intended to be . permanent.

There was no real answer to the question as to why the three cent nickel was needed after the war, so the three cent denomination was discontinued under the Coinage Act of September 26, 1890. Millions of three cent nickels were returned to the mint, melted down and recoined as Liberty nickels.

The three cent nickel was only minted in Philadelphia and, except for a larger date on the 1889 pieces, had no design differences throughout its run.

From 1865 until 1889, 31,378,826 three cent nickels were struck . 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. Those seeking “better date” three cent nickel should look to the years 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. Over the course of the series mintage declined, and some of the latter dates are scarce. But, with an 1865 mintage of over eleven million, a type piece can be inexpensively obtained.


Designer: by James Barton Longacre
Mintage: All Years 31,378,826
Denomintion: $0.03
Diameter: ±17.9 millimeters
Metal content: Nickel – 25% Copper – 75%
Weight: ±30 grains (±1.9 grams)

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