In the late 1840s, gold was discovered in California, setting off the fabled Gold Rush. So much gold was eventually mined and turned into coinage that the ratio of gold to silver went down, with the value of gold plummeting while the price of silver went up and up.
As the metal’s price went up, any and all silver coins were worth more than their face value, which of course led to more people hoarding and melting them. The supply of small silver coins continued to dwindle.
By the early 1850s, virtually no silver coins remained in circulation. The coins in circulation were almost exclusively copper tokens, Half Cents and Large Cents, as Half Dimes, Dimes, Quarters, Half Dollars and Dollars were all hoarded. The nickel had not yet come into being, so making change was nearly impossible.
At about the same time, the United States government decided to roll back postal rates, from five cents to three cents, due to the burgeoning popularity of the U.S. mail service (which began in 1847). At that time, the rates were set at five or 10 cents, depending upon the weight of the mail.
Nevertheless, the three-cent postage rate became the norm and lasted until 1952.
The Treasury Department tried to develop a coin that would serve as change in commercial usage but not be hoarded – thus the Three Cent Silver coin was born. Instead of being composed of .900 fine silver, however, it was struck of .750 Silver and .250 Copper. This ensured that it would not be hoarded for its silver content.
The United States Mint turned to Chief Engraver James Longacre for the design. It was, to say the least, uninspired. An American shield inside of a six-pointed star adorned the obverse. The reverse was equally void of style – a Roman numeral “III” inside of a beaded “C” – no one seems to know why the letter “C” was chosen; perhaps Longacre thought it artistic. In any event, the Three Cent Silver coin was first struck in 1851.
The series continued to be minted for two additional years without any change. In fact, the only coin struck at a branch mint was the 1851-O from the New Orleans Mint with only 720,000 struck. In those three years (1851 to 1853), the Philadelphia Mint struck over more than 35 million coins.
In 1854, the U.S. Mint decided to change things once again. Congress decided to reduce the silver content of the silver coins then in circulation. The silver content of the Half Dime, Dime, Quarter and Half Dollar were all reduced, but the fineness of the Three Cent Silver was increased to the same .900 fineness of the other silver coins. However, this did not inspire hoarding of these very tiny coins. To identify the new Type 2 Three Cent Silver coin from prior versions, there were three lines outlining the star. Only about six million coins of all dates of Type 2 Three Cent Silvers were struck.
To further decrease hoarding of these coins, a law was passed so that these coins had NO value in quantities exceeding $5.00!
Type 2 coins were so weakly struck that the series was redesigned again in 1858 to make the star sharper and clearer. The lettering was sharpened and straightened, and one of the outlines around the star was removed to make the coin designs more obvious. These new Type 3 coins were minted until 1873. The Coinage Act of 1873 abolished the Three Cent Silver coin and the silver Half Dime, making the Three Cent Nickel and Five Cent Nickel coins more acceptable.
Three Cent Silvers were maligned as they were tiny and extremely thin. They discolored easily and many were lost due to their size. They acquired such unpopular names as “fish scales” because of their resemblance to fish scales and they were also nicknamed “trimes”, which was short for Tri (3) Cent Dimes.
All in all, the Three Cent Silver coins were an important piece of U.S. coinage history, but they came at a turbulent time and were redesigned and changed over and over again. The wild fluctuations in the price of Silver contributed mightily to their demise.
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