Silver Three-Cent Pieces Type 1 1851-1853 Coin Guide
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Silver Three-Cent Pieces Type 1 1851-1853
Although the notion of a three-cent piece strikes us as strange today,
in 1851 the denomination actually seemed like a good idea to members of
Congress and even to members of the public. It did serve a purpose for a
time. The impetus for this coin-the smallest ever issued by Uncle Sam in
terms of weight and thickness-was twofold. It was "fathered," so
to speak, by the California Gold Rush and "mothered" by the
nation's postal system.
Following the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, thousands of
fortune-seekers swarmed to California. The "Forty-Niners" and
others who followed them mined enormous quantities of gold. That, in turn,
had a direct impact on U.S. coinage: The massive new supplies of gold
depressed that metal's value in relation to silver, leading to widespread
hoarding of silver coins. Put another way, a rapid rise occurred in the
price of silver, as figured in gold dollars. It became profitable to hoard
and melt silver coins, since they were worth more as metal than as money.
Conversely, hardly anyone was bringing newly mined silver to the Mint for
conversion into coinage, as had been the practice up to then. That helped
limit production, further restricting supplies of silver coins.
By 1851, hardly any silver coins remained in circulation, creating a
real problem for merchants and their customers. The only coins available
for making change in amounts less than a dollar were copper large cents
and half cents, which most people found extremely inconvenient; there
wasn't even a "nickel" as we know it today, since the five-cent
coin in use at the time was the silver half dime and was among the hoarded
As luck would have it, federal officials were then in the midst of
reducing the basic prepaid postal rate from five cents to three cents.
Senator Daniel Stevens Dickinson of New York concluded, logically enough,
that a three-cent coin would be a useful way to purchase stamps.
At that time, most Americans were uncomfortable with the notion of fiat
money (money worth substantially less intrinsically than its face value),
so they surely would have rejected a base-metal three-cent piece with
only, say, a cent's worth of copper. On the other hand, a precious-metal
coin made from the alloy then being used in existing silver coins (90%
silver and 10% copper) might have been subject to the same kind of
hoarding and melting.
Dickinson and his allies hit upon a compromise: a three-cent coin with
enough precious metal to avoid being thought of as fiat money but not
enough to draw the interest of hoarders. The alloy they selected was 75%
silver and 25% copper. This proposal became law as the Act of March 3,
1851, taking effect June 30 of that year.
The job of designing the coin fell to James Barton Longacre, who had
become the Mint's chief engraver seven years earlier. Its small size made
his job extremely difficult. Even allowing for that, few have ever found
this coin artistically compelling. Its obverse depicts a nationalistic
shield superimposed upon a six-pointed star. This is encircled by the
inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the date. The reverse bears the
statement of value in the form of the Roman numeral III within a stylized,
beaded "C." Thirteen stars along the reverse border complete the
At first, the three-cent pieces served their intended purpose: They
circulated widely and facilitated the purchase of postage stamps. But
their shortcomings soon became apparent The coin was so small that it
often got lost in people's pocket change or, worse yet, lost altogether.
Losing three cents was no small matter at a time when workingmen's wages
averaged substantially less than 10 cents an hour. In addition, the tiny
coins had a disturbing tendency to grow discolored and even downright
filthy due to their debased alloy. It wasn't long before these so-called
"trimes" acquired the derogatory nickname of "fish
Judged by the standards of its day, silver three-cent pieces of this
first type were made in large numbers. In all, the Mint produced
36,230,900 examples during the coin's three-year lifespan. More than half
of these were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1852, when the mother
mint's output topped 18.6 million. The only branch-mint issue is 1851-O,
and it's also the scarcest Type 1 coin, with a mintage of 720,000 pieces.
The "O" mintmark of the New Orleans Mint appears on the reverse
at the open end of the "C."
In 1853, Congress passed legislation reducing the weight (and thus the
silver content) of the half dollar, quarter, dime and half dime. This had
the desired effect of discouraging further hoarding and re-establishing
all these silver coins in circulation. That same year, it authorized an
increase in the fineness of the three-cent piece up to 90%, bringing it in
line with the other silver coins. A simultaneous one-twentieth-of-a-gram
cutback in its weight kept it below the point where melting would be
These "Type 2" three-cent pieces didn't appear until 1854,
after Longacre modified the original design, making it easier to detect
the new issues. Among other things, they have two extra outer rims around
the star for a total of three. In 1859, further tinkering occurred to
correct striking problems, and from then through the end of the series in
1873 the "Type 3" issue had only two rims around the star.
Because the Type 1 "trime" comes in only four date-and-mint
varieties, it could easily be collected in that fashion. Many prefer to
set aside just one high-grade example, however, as part of a type set also
including one example apiece of the other two types in this series.
Although their initial popularity quickly waned, most of the early
trimes saw extensive use in circulation. As a result, high-grade mint
state specimens are extremely scarce, especially in levels of MS-66 and
above. Places to check for wear include the points of the star and the
high parts of the Roman numeral III. Weak striking is common with this
issue and should not be mistaken for wear.
According to the late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic scholar and
researcher, four proof specimens of the 1851 silver three-cent piece were
made, evidently struck to celebrate the coin's inception. Reportedly, a
single proof example of 1852 exists in the collection of the American
Numismatic Society in New York City.
Diameter: 14 millimeters Weight: .80 grams Composition: .750 silver,
.250 copper Edge: Plain Net Weight: .01929 ounce pure silver
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Alexander, David T., DeLorey, Thomas K.,
and Reed, P. Bradley, Coin World Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia
of United States Coins, World Almanac-Pharos Books, New York, 1990. Breen,
Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins,
F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and
Coinage, Arco Publishing Co., New York, 1966. Yeoman, R.S., A Guide Book
of United States Coins, 47th Edition, Western Publishing Co., Racine, WI,
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.