At first thought, a three-center coin doesn’t make much sense. Most U.S. coin denominations are based on the decimal system. The dollar can be seen as a whole. Two half-dollar, four quarter-dollars, ten dimes, twenty nickels, or one hundred pennies can easily be exchanged for one dollar. Yet long ago, there was a coin valued at three cents that was in common use throughout America. It was called the three-cent piece in silver, the trime, or as it’s known now, the three-cent silver.
A 3-cent silver is easy to recognize.
First of all, it’s a very small silver coin with a diameter of just 14mm and weight of 0.80 or 0.75 grams. It’s made of .750 silver and .250 copper, or for the later pieces, .900 silver and .100 copper. The earlier pieces contain 0.0193 troy ounces of silver, and the later pieces contain 0.0217 troy ounces.
There are three slightly different designs for the three-cent silver.
In the initial design, the obverse features a star with a shield on it. The star was chosen as a reminder of the stars on the national crest. Surrounding the star is the inscription “United States of America” and the date. The reverse shows a large, ornamental “C” with the Roman Numeral III at its center and thirteen stars surrounding the “C.”
A total of 720,000 of the coins struck in 1851 were struck at the New Orleans Mint and bear the mint mark “O.” The 5,446,400 coins struck that year at the Philadelphia Mint bore no mint mark. After 1851, the three-cent silver was struck only at the Philadelphia Mint and have no mint mark.
Because the coin’s precious metal composition changed from .750 to .900 silver in 1854, the mint altered the design slightly, so people could recognize the new version. So, from 1854 through the end or its minting, the reverse of the 3-cent silver also had an olive branch above the “III” and a bundle of arrows below it.
On the third type, the obverse was changed. After 1859, the star on the obverse had one of the outlines removed and more evenly-spaced lettering. This third type has the same reverse as the second type.
History of the 3-Cent Silver
The U.S. Mint started striking silver coins in the 1790s. The problem was that the silver coins that were struck were often hoarded. By 1849, American silver coins were rare in circulation. Only the smaller denominations of the Spanish Real, including a levy valued at about 12 cents and a fip valued at about 6 cents, were common. The history of the three-cent silver, then, began with a need for small change.
A Need for ChangeIn the late 1840s, gold was coming in from the various gold rushes in such great quantities that silver actually increased in value. When that happened, people held onto their silver. Those who needed a coin that was worth less than the quarter-eagle (valued at $2.50), had little choice but to use the large, half-dollar-sized copper cent or Spanish silver coins.
Since the cent had was not considered legal tender, it was useless in much of the country. Meanwhile, the Spanish silver coins were mostly worn to the point that they were worth less than their face value. People at that time expected coins to be worth at least their face value, so to them, this was unacceptable. Besides that, people often disagreed about how much coins like the levy and the fip were worth. The situation was becoming difficult. People needed small change to buy and sell goods.
In 1850, Senator Daniel S. Dickenson introduced legislation to mint a three-cent coin in .750 silver. Dickenson presented his elaborate plan for exchanging Spanish reals for dollars. The three-cent coins would replace the fip and the levy. The House of Representatives instead focused on reducing the valuation of the real, but no bill was ever passed on that score.
Things changed in 1851 when Congress began considering a reduction in the price of postage from 5 cents to 3 cents. This would necessitate some way to pay for the postage. So, Dickenson’s plan was revived. Congress’ Act of March 3, 1951 was signed by President Millard Fillmore, and the first American coin worth less than the value of its contents was authorized.
Another thing that was new with the three-cent silver was that it was only legal tender up to 30 cents.
In 1849, before the three-cent silver piece was authorized, then mint director Robert M. Patterson had some experimental pattern coins made up. Later, Franklin Peale, the chief coiner, and James B. Longacre, the chief engraver, created competing coins to be considered for the new coin.Peale’s Liberty cap version was favored for its appearance, but Longacre’s design, very similar to the design that was actually used, was chosen because it would be easier to mint. Ease of minting was an important factor because a coin that small would already be hard to strike.
With the design chosen, the coin went into production. In 1873, after many changes in U.S. silver coinage, the three-cent silver was abolished and could no longer be used for spare change. Interestingly, the Coinage Act of 1965 made the three-cent silver legal tender again, as it did for all U.S. coins that had ever been minted. However, since there were no three-cent silvers in circulation, it didn’t matter.
If rarity were the only factor in the value of a coin, some of three-cent silvers would have higher values. For instance, in 1873, only 1,000 three-cent silvers were minted. Still, the low silver content and small size make them less appealing to many collectors. The design is interesting, but it isn’t considered a beautiful coin by most collectors.
Still, there are a few three-cent silvers that are valuable. Proof issues from before 1858 can carry a value as high as $12,000. Those last 1,000 three cent-pieces were proof coins, and they are worth between $825 and $2,000. Proof issue isn’t the only factor in value, either, since the 1863 to 1872 pieces are valued at less in proof as they are in uncirculated condition. If you have a three-cent silver from before 1863, it’s worth at least $40. When you think about it, that’s still a big jump from what is was worth back in its day.
Are you considering adding three-cent silvers to your collection? Our coin experts at GMRgold can share information with you about this and other collectible coins. Fill out our simple contact form or call us at 1 (877) 795-9585 to learn more about the fascinating coins available to coin collectors.