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Coin Collecting: Unusual Coins Of U.S.

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( Published 1963 )

Long before the days of the sales tax, that well-worked source of revenue in so many states, there were some unusual American coin denominations that would have come in quite handy in paying exact sales tax percentages. Unfortunately, most of them were discontinued about a hundred years ago, and there appears to be no move under way to revive them.

How convenient it would be, for example, if the half cent were still around. There would be no argument then about paying, say, the g per cent tax on a 15-cent purchasea half-cent copper would cover it quite adequately. And, under the same tax schedule, the state collection on a 50 cent purchase would be exactly one cent and one half cent.

But the half cent of the United States joined the dodo bird in extinction away back in 1857.

This half cent was designed to meet the needs of a day when a full day's labor might bring in as much as a whole dollar. It was a time of strict economy in government, in stores and in the home, and Ben Franklin's advice - "A penny saved is a penny earned" - was followed religiously. The evening newspaper might cost all of a half cent, although a real sport might toss a full one-cent copper to the newsboy on the corner and grandly proclaim, "Keep the changel"

But there is a lack of popularity about the half cent today. The series hasn't caught on with collectors, and the commoner dates still can be purchased at reasonable prices. Of course, there are some stoppers in the series, and the collector who insists on a complete set of dates should have a rather fat wallet.

In its 64-year lifetime (from 1793 through 1857), there were fewer than 8 1/2 million copper half cents struck and issued by the mint. In each of a dozen years, fewer than 100,00 were struck. The top total mintage was in 1809, when the mint reported it struck only 1,154,572 half cents. Compared to modern mint totals, this figure can be considered peanuts.

An unusual coin with a 9-year life span was the 2-cent bronze piece. First issued in 1864, it had one distinctionon it appeared for the first time the motto "in God We Trust." Its appearance is said to have been due principally to increased religious feeling during the Civil War. But the coin did not catch on with the public and it was discontinued in 1873.

Two types of 3-cent pieces have been minted by the United States-one in silver, the other in nickel. This unusual denomination is said to have been coined for the convenience of postal clerks. Three cents was the amount needed to post a letter during the period, and these coins were intended to keep postal change-making to a minimum.

The silver 3-cent piece, the smallest coin ever made by the United States, was first issued in 1851. The last regular minting was in 1862, although Proofs were continued through 1873. There are three types: the first (1851 through 1853) had no lines bordering the 6-pointed star, the second (1854 through 1858) had three outlines to the star, while the final type (1859-i873 ) had two outlines.

Best dates are the 185i-O, the only 3-cent piece minted in New Orleans, and the 1855 from the Philadelphia mint. From the standpoint of total made, the 1855 is much rarer than the 1851-O-130,000 compared to 720,000. Yet the catalog values in Fine condition are identical, and relatively close in both Good and Uncirculated.

The 3-cent nickel piece (1865-1889) is a series which offers little to the imaginative collector: there was only the one type issued, and the only thing to break the monotony in a complete set is the difference in dates. In its first year of existence (1865), there were issued more than 11 million nickel 3-centers-almost half again as many coins as make up the half-cent entire lifetime total.

A silver United States half clime, while it might appear strange in circulation today, actually was not an unusual coin for the America of 150 years ago. It was needed by thrifty housewives and careful merchants, and it was more than a mere token coin; it actually contained a half dime's worth of silver. Today's 5-cent nickel piece has taken its place, but the metallic worth of this coin is nowhere near its stated value.

Another weird denomination (by present-day standards) was the 20-cent piece, started in 1875, and abruptly phased out only three years later. The main trouble with the coin was that it looked much too much like a quarter dollar then current-and its size was too close.

A complete collection of 20-centers would include exactly seven examples, but it would be quite valuable. The 1876 20-cent piece struck at Carson City has a catalog value of around $7,000. The Carson City mint reported that it struck 10,000 of these coins in 1876, but most of them were melted down and never released. There are presently 14 such 1876-CC 20-cent pieces known.

An unusual coin was issued by the United States Mint in 1873-the Trade Dollar. It was not intended for circulation in this country but far trade with Japan and other nations in the Orient. The object in issuing it was to compete, if possible, with the silver dollars of Mexico and Spain, and to encourage the shipment of United States silver to the East Indies, for the United States had suddenly become a silver-producing nation.

For three years, the Trade Dollar was legal tender in the United States to the extent of $5 worth. But in 1876, this legal-tender provision was repealed by Congress (due to the decline in the price of silver bullion), and the Treasury was ordered to limit coinage to export demand.

There's long been a slang saying in this country: "As phony as a $4 bill:" And, if you should tell a friend that you had a $4 gold piece in your collection, he'd figure you were either a bit balmy or were pulling his leg.

But the United States did once have a $4 gold coin. And, if you happen to have an example in your collection, you're a very lucky person, for its current catalog value ranges between $5,00 and $13,500.

Actually, the $4 gold piece, popularly known as a "Stella" because of the large 5-pointed star that dominates the reverse side, was a pattern coin. Yet it is one of the most popular of all United States coins.

It was issued in extremely limited quantities in Proof only-a total of 425 in 1879 and only 25 in 1880, the second and final year of issue. The least valuable Stella is the "Flowing Hair" type, designed by Charles E. Barber and issued in 1879- Its catalog value is a mere $5,750, while the "Coiled Hair" type, designed by George T. Morgan, is quoted at $13,500, providing the date is 1880. The Barber type of that year (1880) isn't too far behind, being valued at $11,000 in Proof condition.

This high-priced Stella has what might be called a "poor relation" in the gold coin family-the $3 gold piece. Even the existence of a $3 coin of gold often comes as a surprise to the average American.

But even this "poor relation" can command a high price if the date is right. For example, the 1875 $3 gold piece, of which only 20 were struck in Proof, is rated a $12,500 coin, while that of the following year (total mintage 45) is valued at $4,350.

The $3 gold piece was first issued in 1854 and continued through 1889. But it was never a popular coin with the public, and saw very little actual circulation.

Until a few years ago, even coin collectors didn't care too much for it. One could buy an Uncirculated example for less than $So. But all that changed abruptly. Today, most dates in Very Fine condition are cataloged from $150 upwards. In Uncirculated condition, the least expensive ones are cataloged at $200, with certain dates rated as high as $950.

And so, the unusual coins of the United States, having served the purposes for which they were intended, have vanished along with the oxcart, the oil lamp, and sulfur and molasses.

The 3-cent piece no longer is needed since it's not enough to buy one first-class postage stamp. Nor is the $3 gold piece sufficient to buy a hundred of those postage stamps.

The half cent could have been revived to good purpose when the sales tax first appeared on the state scenes. But it's too late now; the American public is accustomed to the 1-cent overpayment here and there.

The 2-cent copper, while popular and acceptable in its day, would be a pain in the pocket because of its size and weight today.

There's absolutely no need for a Trade Dollar. The American public can't even be persuaded to accept the lighter, standard silver dollar, except in areas where they'll fit slot machines.

But the unusual coins which the United States has issued over the years at last are finding homes in which they are appreciated-almost every collector appears to hope to get at least one of each type for his collection.