Although considered to be one of the odd denominations of the American monetary system, the three cent piece was struck for nearly four decades across two different series. The Three Cent Silver Pieces were produced from 1851 to 1873 with a separate overlapping series struck in nickel until 1889. The silver series features one basic design, which saw some modifications during the series leading to the creation of three different subtypes. Production levels were generally higher early in the series and then dwindled to extremely low figures towards the end, culminating with a final issue struck in proof format only.
The history of the three cent silver piece and the three cent denomination in general can be traced back to the late 1840’s. Even then, circulating coinage in the United States largely consisted of fractional Spanish Colonial Coins, dating back as early as the mid 18th century. Since the coins had been in circulation for many years, they were often barely recognizable and no longer contained the expected amount of silver due to excessive wear. At the same time, the price of copper had been rising in price steadily over the past decade creating doubts about the continued viability of the large copper cents and half cents that were being produced. It was believed that the three cent denomination could mitigate both of these problems and improve the overall circulation of minor United States coinage.
The event which triggered the introduction of the three cent silver piece in circulation, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the Spanish Colonial Coinage or coins in general. In early 1851, the postage rate for a regular letter was decreased from five to three cents. As such, a three cent silver coin would facilitate the purchase of a product sold regularly by the United States government. Later in the decade, the postage rate would also lead to the introduction of the three dollar gold piece in order to facilitate purchases of sheets of 100 stamps.
Authorized under the Act of March 3, 1851, the Three Cent Silver Coins were designed by James Barton Longacre. Unlike other coins produced for circulation at the time, the design lacked a visual representation of Liberty. Instead, the obverse design featured a star with a shield in the center, with the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around and the date below. The design would be changed twice, with the first change corresponding with a change in the composition. In 1853, two outlines were added around the star in addition to modifications to the reverse design. Later in 1859, one of the outlines was removed. The resulting three different designs are generally considered to be different types and are usually collected as such by type set collectors.
The reverse design of the coin features the denomination represented as the Roman numeral “III” with an ornamental “C” representing “cents”. An evenly spaced circle of thirteen stars along the border represents each of the original thirteen colonies. When the obverse design was changed in 1853, an olive sprig was added above the “III” and a bundle of arrows was added below.
Originally the three cent silver coins were to be issued when old Spanish colonial silver coins were turned in at the Mint in Philadelphia. The results, however, were somewhat unsatisfactory and the Spanish colonial coins would remain a common occurrence in circulation until they were outlawed later in the decade, in 1857 The three cent silver denomination would continue to be struck until the passage of the Mint Act of 1873, which eliminated the two cent piece, silver three cent piece, half dime, and silver dollar. The three cent denomination would continue in the form of the three cent nickel, which had been introduced in 1865 and would continue to be struck until 1889.