Featured Mail a Letter for a Trime (A Silver Three Cent Piece)

Discussion in 'US Coins Forum' started by johnmilton, May 19, 2020.

  1. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    Recent increases in postage rates remind me of a time in the 19th century when the government decreased the postage rate and issued a new coin to make the purchase of postage stamps easier. In 1851 Congress reduced the postage rate for a letter from five to three cents and authorized a new coin, the Silver Three Cent Piece or “Trime,” to facilitate the transition.

    Three large Cents.jpg

    Very few customers in rural post offices would have had three large cents available to purchase the new three cent stamps. Large cents did not circulate well outside of the big cities, especially Philadelphia.

    Although the mint had been issuing Large Cents for almost 60 years, the big pennies were never popular and were seldom seen in circulation outside of the big cities. Therefore it was highly unlikely that a customer in rural post office would have had three cents to purchase a stamp, and it was almost equally unlikely that a postal clerk would have had two cents to make change from a Half-dime.

    Further complicating situation was fact that many of the current silver coins were disappearing from circulation. The reason was that the discovery of huge gold deposits in California had upset the ratio between the prices of gold and silver. As a result every United States silver coin contained more precious metal than its face value. This led to widespread hoarding and melting.

    Another unrelated factor concerned the legal tender status of the Spanish Dollar in the United States. Since the earliest days of the United States monetary system, this coin had been legally recognized to be equal in value to a U.S. dollar in the payment of all debts. This special recognition for the Spanish Dollar had been necessary because the U.S. Mint system had been unable to supply enough coins to meet the nation’s needs.

    1763 Spanish Dollar.jpg
    The Spanish Milled Dollar was legal tender in the United States until 1857.

    By the 1850s money traders had found an unusual way to beat the government out of some hard currency. After purchasing well-worn and underweight Spanish Dollars at a discount, the law allowed these money traders to exchange these coins for full-weight United States pieces. Congress wanted to discourage this abuse, but the legislators were unwilling to remove the Spanish Dollar’s legal tender status at that time. That move would come a few years later in 1857.

    Instead Congress decided to look for a way to make the exchange of Spanish Dollars for U.S. coinage less profitable and more inconvenient. The solution was the Trime because it contained less pure silver and was far less convenient for the money traders to use. Image bringing in 100 Spanish Dollars for exchange and getting back more than 3,300 Trimes instead of 100 silver dollars or 200 half-dollars. Obviously that policy made the exchange of Spanish Dollars for U.S. coins much less attractive.

    The trime was the smallest coin that the United States Government has ever issued. It was also first U.S. coin that the Government frankly admitted contained less precious metal than its face value. Although the trime is larger in diameter than the Type I Gold Dollar, it weighs less than half as much. In fact the coin is so tiny and so thin that it is almost impossible to lift the piece from a flat surface such as a tabletop. This prompted some people to call the tiny coins “fish scales,” which was a term of derision.

    1851-O Trime.jpg

    The 1851-O Three Cent Piece was the only trime that was made at the New Orleans Mint.

    1852 Trime.jpg

    This high grade (MS-66) 1852 trime is especially nice. Many of these Mint State pieces have unattractive spots or toning because of their unusual composition which was 75% silver and 25% copper.

    The Type I Trime (1851-3)

    The first Trimes appeared in circulation in 1851. The tiny coins were made of a new alloy that consisted of 75% silver and 25% copper. Previously all U.S. silver coins had contained “around” 90% silver and 10% copper. (Note: The earliest U.S. silver coins legally mandated to be 89.24% silver and 10.76% copper. That standard proved to be unworkable and was ultimately changed.)

    The design of the tiny coin was fairly simple. The obverse featured a star with a U.S. shield in the center. This device was surrounded by the legend, “United States of America,” with the date at the bottom. The reverse featured a large “C” with the Roman numeral “III” in the center. This was surround by 13 stars. Initially the coin was quite popular, and the government issued over 36 million pieces in the first three years.

    Today the Type I trime (1851-3) is quite common in well circulated condition. Although many pieces were well struck, most trimes show some weakness down the center of the shield in the middle of the star; and some of the 1851-O trimes are poorly struck in the date area.

    The 1851-O is one of my favorite coins. It was the only three cent piece that was issued by a branch mint, and its mintage of 720,000 pieces was relatively low. Despite those factors the coin has not been a prime collector favorite, and its price is quite reasonable.

    1858 Trime.jpg

    An 1858 Type II trime. The Type II is the scarcest of the three minor trime designs.

    The Type II Trime (1854-8)

    In 1854 Congress changed the composition of the trime to the standard 90% silver, 10% copper alloy. Perhaps as a reflection of that change, Chief Mint Engraver James Longacre, with the approval of the mint director, modified the design of the trime. The modifications included a triple border around the edge of the star on the obverse and the addition of an olive branch above and a bundle of arrows below the Roman numeral “III” on the reverse.

    Perhaps because Longacre had tried to put too much detail on an extremely thin coin, the Type II Trimes are almost never fully struck. Usually one side or more often parts of the border around the star are missing, and virtually all of the coins show weakness in the center of the shield.

    Since there were many Type I trimes were already in circulation, the mintage of the Type II pieces was relatively small. In addition, far fewer pieces were saved; and today the Type II trime is quite scarce and is expensive in Mint State condition. Some pieces also have striation lines across their surfaces because those marks were on the planchets (coin blanks) before the coins were struck and not flattened by the dies. This striation problem is also seen on the rare Type II Proof trimes. These lines reduce the eye appeal of these coins considerably.

    1867 Trime.jpg

    The Type III trime disappeared from cirulation during the Civil War and would never return.

    The Type III Trime (1859-73)

    In 1859 Longacre with some help from assistant mint engraver, Anthony C. Paquet, successfully modified the trime design, and the appearance of the coin improved considerably. The Type III Trimes had a double border around the outside of the shield and smaller, narrower letters and dates. Those modifications were enough to correct the previous mechanical problems that had plagued the coin.

    The Type III trimes were issued in fairly large numbers (almost 1.5 million coins) from 1859 to 1862. By the end of that period the Civil War was in full swing, and the people were hoarding virtually all silver coins including the trimes. As a result the mintages for all U.S. silver coins fell to very low levels.

    Following the War the hoarding of silver coins continued, and in 1865 the mint introduced the Nickel Three Cent Piece. The new coin was larger and easier to handle, which made the trime obsolete.

    Although the Mint continued to strike a few thousand business strike trimes each year along with several hundred Proof coins, virtually none of the Mint State pieces left the government’s vaults. By 1873 the Mint had 74,000 Trimes on hand including almost all of the 1863 to 1873 mintage. When Congress ended the mintage of the trime, these coins were melted thus making the few business strike trimes from that period very scarce. Today nearly all of the 1863 to 1873 trimes that are available to collectors are Proof coins. The few remaining Mint State pieces are rarities that sell for higher prices than their Proof counterparts.

    1865 Ni 3 Cent.jpg
    Although the Nickel Three Cent Piece would replace the trime in 1865, it too would become obsolete. The coinage ended for this series in 1889.

    Last edited: May 19, 2020
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  3. I did not have the time to read this, but I made the time. So much information in one place. Thanks for the fascinating read!
    GeorgeM and Robert Ransom like this.
  4. Randy Abercrombie

    Randy Abercrombie Supporter! Supporter

    @johnmilton you are an absolute treasure of coin knowledge... Fish scales!!! I'll remember that every time I handle a silver trime from now on.
    Last edited: May 19, 2020
    slackaction1, JeffC and Robert Ransom like this.
  5. -jeffB

    -jeffB Greshams LEO Supporter

    Sorry, I'm distracted at the thought of a bag containing thousands of freshly-struck trimes. :greedy:

    I'll have to check eBay completed auctions or Numismedia, but if we lose USPS first-class service and have to go FedEx for sending letters, we may well get back to the point where mailing a letter costs a trime!
  6. Robert Ransom

    Robert Ransom Well-Known Member

    Great post! I realize the 'trime' you spent putting this thread together and appreciate your effort.
  7. johnmilton

    johnmilton Well-Known Member

    I am sure that if back in 1851, a merchant, who had deposited 100 Spanish silver dollar for recoinage, got that bag back from his consignment that he would not have enjoyed them nearly as much as your would have. :jawdrop: Of course you can get tired of anything, and even 3,333 BU trimes can get to you after a while.
    -jeffB likes this.
  8. Paddy54

    Paddy54 Variety Collector

  9. CoinCorgi

    CoinCorgi Derp, derp, derp!

    1851-O 3-cent silver

    3CS 1851-O obv.jpg 3CS 1851-O rev.jpg
  10. -jeffB

    -jeffB Greshams LEO Supporter

    For that matter, I'm thinking there's still a reasonable chance that someone, 150 years down the road, would drool over the thought of a nice fresh roll of uncorrupted 2020 Zincolns. "Why couldn't someone have bought a few rolls, put them into a pipe, flushed it with argon, and welded it shut? And then left it where I could find it?"
    GeorgeM likes this.
  11. Conder101

    Conder101 Numismatist

    Lightest, not the smallest. The trime was 14 mm in diameter, the type 1 gold dollar that started 2 years earlier was 13 mm. But gold being denser, the smaller dollar was heaver than the trime.

    The star has two outlines on the type II and one outline on the Type III. At first glance it looks like three and two because you eye sees the edge of the star as the "first outline". But it is actually Type I star only, type II star and two outlines, type III star and one outline.
    LakeEffect likes this.
  12. JeffC

    JeffC Hogwarts Numismatist Apprentice Supporter

    @johnmilton I've known about the association between the issuance of the 3-Cent piece and postage stamps before, but I never knew why. You always explain the "Whys."
    Last edited: May 19, 2020
    johnmilton likes this.
  13. BuffaloHunter

    BuffaloHunter Short of a full herd Supporter

    Always love the history lessons, @johnmilton ! I had a raw nickel three cent piece, but got rid of it. I expect I'll one day acquire another for my type set. Pics are not the greatest, but here is my silver three cent piece (PCGS MS64):

    1853 3CS Obv.jpg 1853 3CS Rev.jpg
    longshot likes this.
  14. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder Supporter

    What a great way to spend a chilly, damp evening.. sipping a glass of wine and reading a J. Milton post. The 3 cent silvers are a really interesting series and I appreciate all the information packed into this thread. OK if I post a pic or 2?
    1862 trime obv.jpg 1862 trime rev.jpg 1851-O trime obv.jpg 1851-O trime rev.jpg
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  15. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder Supporter

    a couple more:
    CoinCorgi and johnmilton like this.
  16. ksparrow

    ksparrow Coin Hoarder Supporter

  17. kaparthy

    kaparthy Supporter! Supporter

    Actually, the cause was private competition against the postal system.
    (See Wikipedia for Lysander Spooner and his American Letter Mail Company. He was but one of several.) When AML Co. started, it cost 18-3/4 cents to mail a letter just from Baltimore to New York.

    See The Foundation for Economic Education here:
    And on the inefficiency of state monopolies here at the Online Library of Liberty:

    Wikipedia on the American Letter Mail Company:
    "Spooner started the service out of frustration with the exceedingly high postal rates. It cost 18 3/4 cents to send a letter from Boston to New York and 25 cents to send one all the way to Washington DC. A letter sent from Boston to Albany, NY written on a 1/4-ounce sheet of paper and carried by the Western Railroad, cost 2/3 as much as the freight charge for carrying a barrel of flour the same distance. Spooner's justification was that the Constitution provided for a government-run postal service, but did not exclude others from engaging in the same business. Spooner dropped his rates even lower, delivering many letters for free. This competition dropped prices dramatically with postage of 6 1/4 cents per each half-ounce and stamps 20 for a dollar. Deliveries were made twice daily between New York City and Philadelphia. The US Government tried to lower prices by threatening railroads to withdraw business. However, the U.S. Government challenged Spooner with legal measures whereby Spooner was initially vindicated. In fact the U.S. Circuit Court expressed doubt that the U.S. had the right to monopolize the transportation of mail. Congress eventually forced him to cease operations in 1851 by legislating a US monopoly. [1]"
    The citation is to this article:
    Goodyear, Lucille J. "Spooner vs. U.S. Postal System," American Legion Magazine, January 1981.

    In addition to the 3-cent silver, the Mint also created the $3 gold (1854-1889) to facilitate purchase of 100-stamp sheets. The Red Book considers that an opinion by numismatists. We have no epigraphic archival evidence from the Mint on their motives.
    Last edited: May 21, 2020
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  18. posnerfan_48

    posnerfan_48 Member

    Thanks for the great write up! Those New Orleans trimes look neat. Here's my nickel three cent, acquired at a coin show right before this COVID mess.

    ksparrow and johnmilton like this.
  19. Santinidollar

    Santinidollar Supporter! Supporter

    Once again, an excellent article!
    johnmilton likes this.
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