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(Article orginally published November 1962)
Three cent pieces are divided into two general types--silver and nickel. The silver pieces were minted from 1851 through 1873, while the nickel coins were minted from 1865 through 1889. During the years 1865 through 1873, both nickel and silver pieces were issued for general circulation.
Three Cents-Silver 1851-1873
On March 3, 1861, Congress authorized the minting of the smallest in size United States coin, sometimes called a Trime. The first 3¢ pieces issued weighed 12 3/8 grains and were minted in silver of .750 fineness. A little later this weight was reduced to 11.52 grains while the fineness was raised to .900.
A general description of the coin is as follows: Obverse, a five-pointed star surrounded by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, date beneath star; reverse, Roman numeral III within an ornate C, surrounded by 13 small six-pointed stars. The size of this coin was said to make it elusive in pocket or purse, and for this reason it was never a popular issue.
There are three minor types of the silver 3¢ pieces:
Type 1-1851-53: Obverse with plain star without an outline; reverse same as above. (Figure 1)
Type 2-1854-58: Obverse with three outlines to star; reverse as above, but with an olive sprig above and a bundle of arrows beneath the Roman numeral III.
Type 3-1859-73: Obverse with two outlines to star; reverse like Type 2. (Figure 2)
In 1851, trimes were minted at both Philadelphia and New Orleans. Those minted at New Orleans have a mint mark "O" to the right of III. Pieces bearing this mint mark are hard to obtain, and in choice condition are valued up to $50.
In 1864, and again in 1873, only proof coins were issued, and when found in a state of unmarred brilliance are worth in excess of $50 each. It is rather difficult to complete a date set of these coins in perfect condition today.
Three Cents-Nickel 1865-1889
On March 3, 1865, the President signed the bill authorizing the coinage of the nickel 3¢ piece. Though this piece is regarded as being minted in nickel, the alloy is actually 75-25 copper-nickel. These coins were minted only at the Philadelphia Mint and were coined continuously from 1865 through 1889. In 1877, only proof coins were struck and in small quantity; this piece now brings a price in excess of $200 when offered in choice proof condition.
A general description of the coin is as follows: Obverse, Liberty Head facing left, surrounded by UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, date between base of Liberty head and border; reverse, Roman numeral III within a wreath. Only one type was made. (Figure 3)
As with the silver series, a complete date set of 3¢ nickel pieces is difficult to obtain, but a specimen may be secured from dealers at a modest cost, in fine condition, to fit into a denomination set.
The unpopularity of this coin is indicated by the fact that it was minted in diminishing quantities until it was finally suspended in 1889.
This coin, being almost identical to our dime in size, was encountered frequently a few years back in money collected from pay telephones and other coin operated machines. In the early 1930s, the telephone company in a large Eastern city had on hand an accumulation of over 3.000 of these coins. At that time, this represented a loss of seven cents each. If these coins are still in the phone company's possession today, they have a collector value of over $3,000-a better than fair return on their investment!