A Brief History of the Silver Three Cent Piece

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by johnmilton, Sep 4, 2019.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    The silver three cent piece is a remarkable coin in many ways. First, it is the lightest coin ever issued by the United States Government. Second, it is the first U.S. coin that had an intrinsic value (metal content) which was officially less than its face value. Finally the coin is an unusual example of where the U.S. Treasury coordinated the issuance of a coin with another government agency, the Post Office.

    A version of the U.S. Postal Service was in existence before the 13 original colonies won their independence from England. Unfortunately the cost of mailing a single folded sheet of paper was more than many citizens could afford. In 1816 it cost six cents to mail one sheet of paper, without an envelope, 30 miles or less. Beyond 30 miles the rates got progressively higher until the cost reached 25 cents to mail one sheet of paper 400 miles or more. To put these prices into perspective, a dinner at a fancy New York City restaurant, Delmonico’s, cost 12 cents. Since the party receiving the mail was required to pay the postage in order to get the letter, the receipt of mail often posed a financial burden for a poor family.

    In the mid 1840s the Post Office department introduced the concept of pre-paid postage where the sender paid the mailing fees. The mileage bands were reduced from five to two, and the postage rates were lowered to five and ten cents for each mileage band. The Post Office also began to issue the first U.S. stamps, a five cent stamp with Benjamin Franklin on it and a ten cent piece that featured George Washington. Finally in 1851 the postage rate was lowered to three cents, and shortly thereafter pre-paid postage became the official policy. The three cent postage rate would stand more than a century.

    The introduction of the three cent postage rate posed a problem for stamp purchasers. Large cents had never been popular and had never circulated well outside of the largest cities. Government officials noted that many people would not often have three large cents to buy a stamp, and that post offices could run short of large cents that would be required to make change. The three cent piece was a logical solution.

    1852 3 Cent O.jpg 1852 3 Cent R.jpg
    An 1852 Type I Trime, PCGS MS-66

    Given its small size, the Silver Three Cent Piece or “trime” had a very simple design. The obverse featured a five pointed star surrounded by the legend, “United States of America,” and the date. The reverse featured a large “C” that encompassed the Roman numeral “III.” These devices were encircled by 13 stars.

    The discovery of gold in California had altered the price ratio between gold and silver to the point where all U.S. silver coins had a melt value that exceeded their face value. To keep the trime in circulation, the alloy was set at 75% silver and 25% copper instead of the usual 90% - 10% ratio. Therefore it was no secret that melting trimes was unprofitable because the coin contained less than three cents worth of silver.

    The new three cent pieces were an immediate hit as evidenced by the number well worn examples that collectors see today of the early dates from 1851 to 1853. Yet the coin had one major drawback. The trime was so small and thin that it was virtually impossible to lift the coin from a flat surface. Hence the public gave the coins the derisive nickname, “fish scales.”

    1858ThreeCentO.JPG 1858ThreeCentR.JPG
    An 1858 Type III Trime, PCGS MS-63

    In 1853 Congress lowered the weight of the half dime, dime, quarter and half dollar to put an end to the widespread melting of those coins. Arrows were placed beside the date of the coins to indicate that the weight of these pieces was lower. In 1854, Congress increased the purity of the trime to 90% silver and 10% copper to bring the coin in line with the rest of the U.S. silver coinage. This change in composition was marked by a modified design. The so-called Type 2 trime had two lines around the star on the obverse, and an olive branch and a bundle of arrows was added above and below the “III” on the reverse.

    The Type 2 trimes (1854 to ’58) are much scarcer than the Type 1 pieces, especially in Mint State. The annual mintages were lower because many of the earlier pieces were still in circulation. There were also technical issues with the sharpness of the strike. For whatever reason, the Philadelphia mint could not strike the more complicated design well. As a result many Type 2 trimes wore out before their time.

    1867 3 cent Sil O.jpg 1867 3 cent Sil R.jpg
    An 1867 Type III Trime, PCGS PR-66, CAM, CAC

    In 1859 the technical problems with Type 2 trimes prompted designer James Longacre to modify his design. The Type 3 trime had one outline around the large obverse star instead of two. The resulting coins were much sharper and more attractive.

    The outbreak of the Civil War prompted widespread hoarding of U.S. coinage. Many pieces were shipped to Canada and the Caribbean where money changers paid a premium for them. Far less silver was brought to the Philadelphia mint for coinage, and the mintages for all silver coins were low.

    The trimes were especially hard hit by this change. Mintages of business strike trimes fell to very low levels, and what few coins that were struck never made it to circulation and were subsequently melted. Today the surviving trimes dated from 1863 to 1873 are almost exclusively limited to Proof coins. In 1873 Congress ended the coinage of trimes. By then the Nickel Three Cent Piece had become a more popular and practical alternative.

    A Proof Nickel Three Cent Piece

    1882 3 cent NI O.jpg 1882 3 cent NI R.jpg
    An 1882 Nickel Three Cent Piece, NGC PR-66, CAM
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  3. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    The 1851-O Silver Three Cent Piece has long been one of my favorite coins. It was the lowest denomination coin that the New Orleans Mint struck. New Orleans issued these coins for only one year. The mintage was 720,000 pieces. MGC graded this piece MS-63.

    1851OAg3centO.JPG 1851OAg3centR.JPG
    Paul M., longshot, Murphy45p and 3 others like this.
  4. Dougmeister

    Dougmeister Well-Known Member

    @johnmilton, I enjoy every single last one of your historical write-ups. Thank you!

    In case no one has said it recently, I am sure glad you joined CoinTalk!

    P.S. We need a sticky "Master List" of these... @lordmarcovan ...?
    CircCam and johnmilton like this.
  5. derkerlegand

    derkerlegand Well-Known Member

    Great! I didn't know about the postal connection. Thank you.
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2019
  6. Johndoe2000$

    Johndoe2000$ Well-Known Member

    Another excellent post, thanks.
  7. Conder101

    Conder101 Numismatist

    One comment, by the time the Civil War was getting close, no one was bring silver to the mint to be made into coins. After the Act of February 21, 1853, citizens could no longer bring silver to the mint for coinage. They could have it made into bars, for a charge, or the could sell it to the government, if the government wanted it. All coinage done after the passage of the act was done on the governments account with the government accruing the seigniorage profits, if any. The public could not bring silver to the mint for coinage again until the Trade dollar was created and then they could only have their silver made into trade dollars.
    johnmilton likes this.
  8. Murphy45p

    Murphy45p Active Member

    I really enjoy your posts, knowledge and amazing coins! That 1867 is stunning! I know you were a long time dealer, how long did it take you to accumulate your collection? And how did you go about it? You have a very good eye, I hope someday to gain more skill in that area, even though my eyesight gets worse every passing year. Thanks!
  9. physics-fan3.14

    physics-fan3.14 You got any more of them.... prooflikes?

    Very nice history!

    I will say, from my perspective as a prooflike collector, PL silver 3cs are available but scarce. PLs are available for several dates, although most only have a couple graded. 1871 has the most with 8, and 1862 is the runner up with 6 (I have long wanted your favorite, an 1851O, in PL, but haven't been able to get one yet). Overall for the series, 10,434 coins have been graded, of which 40 are PL. This is actually a fairly high percentage - 0.38% of all graded silver 3 cents are PL!

    Here is one of the highest graded you'll ever see: NGC MS-67* PL CAC.

    JPA1033 obverse.jpg JPA1033 reverse.jpg
    Johndoe2000$ and Murphy45p like this.
  10. Johndoe2000$

    Johndoe2000$ Well-Known Member

    Wow, that's an awesome trime. The first PL I've seen. And 67* just WOW.
    Is that a scratch under the 3rd 111, above the arrows band ?
  11. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    I doubt that you will ever find an 1851-O trime in P-L. It was frequently not a well made issue. I had one when I was kid that would probably grade Ch VF to EF, and it had a weak date. It was the way it was made.

    I have seen a few of the "finest known" examples in MS-66 holders. None of them were P-L. They were nice but not worth the $7,000 + price tags they had. All of them were NGC graded.
  12. physics-fan3.14

    physics-fan3.14 You got any more of them.... prooflikes?

    There are 5 graded PL at NGC.
  13. physics-fan3.14

    physics-fan3.14 You got any more of them.... prooflikes?

    It is a minor strike-through (probably thread). Since it's as-made, it doesn't count against the grade.
    Johndoe2000$ likes this.
  14. Terrifrompa

    Terrifrompa Member

    thank you for the history of the silver 3cent piece. I learned a lot
  15. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder

    great thread and I like the part about why the "fish scale" name was applied to the 3 cent silvers.
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