Guide to U.S. Silver Three Cent Pieces
Although considered to be one of the odd denominations of the American monetary system, the three cent piece was struck across two different series over the course of nearly four decades. The first series, known as the Silver Three Cent Piece or “trime,” was produced from 1851 to 1873. During this period, the series underwent design changes resulting in three different subtypes. Production levels were generally high early in the series before dwindling to extremely low levels in later years, culminating with a final issue struck in proof format only.
The history of the three cent denomination can be traced back to the late 1840’s. At the time, 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. Meanwhile, the price of copper had been rising 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.
Amidst these contributing factors, the event that would finally catalyze the introduction of the three cent denomination had to do with postage. In early 1851, the postage rate for a regular letter was reduced from five cents to three cents. As such, a three cent silver coin was deemed necessary to facilitate the purchase of stamps sold by the United States government. Later in the decade, the three-cent postage rate would also lead to the introduction of the three dollar gold piece in order to facilitate the purchase of sheets of 100 stamps.
Authorized under the Act of March 3, 1851, the Silver Three Cent Pieces were designed by James Barton Longacre. The obverse design would feature a six-pointed star with a shield placed at the center. The shield had an arrangement of thirteen vertical stripes bound by horizontal lines at the crest. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears surrounding with the date below. The reverse features the denomination as the Roman numeral “III” surrounded by an ornamental “C” to represent “cents.” The design is completed with an evenly spaced circle of thirteen stars around the border of the coin.
The original design would be used for the first three years of the series from 1851 to 1853. The following year, both the obverse and reverse designs would be modified slightly. On the obverse, lines were added bordering the six-pointed star. On the reverse, an olive sprig was added above and a bundle of arrows was added below the “III.” This design would be used from 1854 to 1858. From 1859 until the conclusion of the series in 1873, the lines bordering the obverse star would be removed while the additional reverse design elements were left in place. These changes resulted in the creation of three distinct subtypes.
Originally the three cent silver coins were to be issued when old Spanish Colonial silver coins were redeemed at the Mint in Philadelphia. However, the results were somewhat unsatisfactory and the Spanish coins would continue to circulate until they were finally outlawed in 1857. The three cent silver denomination would be produced 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.
The Silver Three Cent Pieces were struck in proof format for each year of the series from 1858 to 1873. Mintage levels for these pieces varied from a low of approximately 210 pieces in 1858 to 1,000 pieces reached during three separate years. In 1873, the Mint did not produce coins for circulation, but struck only 600 coins in proof format.