For a country using a decimal system of money, a three cent coin seems odd and out of place. Although, in 1851 it made perfect sense. The postage rate in 1851 was only three cents and to accommodate the purchase of postage stamps a 3 cent coin was being requested. The requests did not fall on political deaf ears as Congress authorized the minting of three cent pieces on March 3, 1851.
Designed by James B. Longacre, the three cent piece had a composition of 75% silver & 25% copper and with a diameter of only 14mm it was the smallest silver coin ever minted by the U.S.
The obverse design features a nationalistic shield superimposed upon a six-pointed star and is encircled by the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”.
The reverse design features a stylized “C” and inset within the “C” is the Roman numeral III to represent the value. Encircling the overall reverse design are thirteen stars along the reverse border. Later re-designs added an olive sprig above the III and a bundle of arrows below. The 1851-O issue was the only year that a mint (other than Philadelphia) minted a three cent piece and an “O” mint mark can be found on the reverse to the right of the “C”.
The three cent piece (sometimes referred to as a trime or “fish scale”) initially fulfilled exactly what was expected of it. But as years went by, demand diminished as the small coins were easily lost and remember that this was the 1850’s so three cents actually had some purchasing power. Another negative to the coin was its odd, dark toning from the debasing of the silver by adding so much copper. This dirty looking toning quickly earned it the nickname of “fish scales”.
Three major varieties exist for the series:
- 1851 to 1853 No outline around obverse star
- 1854 to 1858 Double outline around obverse star and olive sprigs & arrows added to reverse
- 1859 to 1873 Single outline around obverse star and olive sprigs & arrows added to reverse
|Variety 1 no outline||Variety 2 double outline|
|Variety 3 single outline||Variety 2 & 3 reverse|
General Market Notes
The 1852 & 1853 issues with respective mintages of 18,663,500 & 11,400,000 make these two coins the most available and affordable to collectors.
By 1863 demand quickly died down and mintages dwindled down to nominal amounts for circulating issues till a decision was made to cease production of circulating issues after 1872 (only proofs were made in 1873). Examples from 1863 to 1872 are the keys to the series and carry a significant price tag in relation to earlier years.
For the value investor, take a look at the 1860 issue with only a mintage of 286,000. Prices in most grades are only slightly higher than that of the 1852 & 1853 issues but with a substantially lower mintage.
For the historical collector, take a look at the 1851-O issue. Many people believe that the 1908-S Indian Head Cent was the first minor coinage (a coin worth less than 5 cents) ever minted outside of the Philadelphia mint but the truth is that the silver three cent piece minted at the New Orleans Mint was the first.