No Respect: What Good was a 3-Cent Piece?

The 3-cent piece was introduced in silver in 1851, to coincide with the introduction of the 3-cent postage rate. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

The reverse of the 1851 3-cent piece. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

By Gerald Tebben

The 3-cent piece. What was it good for? Cheap cigars, postage stamps and deception.

Minted in two significantly different versions from 1851 through 1889, the denomination lived and died with 3-cent postage. In 1842, the U.S. Post Office, founded in 1775, took over a private company that provided to-the-door delivery in New York City and began building out intra-city delivery nationally. In 1851, largely in response to competition, postage was set at three cents.

The tiny, silver 3-cent coin was created to facilitate purchase of 3-cent stamps—red-brown issues picturing George Washington. It didn’t hurt that the denomination essentially equaled the Spanish Colonial quarter real, a tiny silver coin widely accepted as 3.125 cents.

Distinctively different 3-cent coins were issued over 40 years.

The three-cent stamp that brought on the minting of the 3-cent coin.

A silver 3-cent coin was issued from 1851 through 1873. From 1851 through 1853, the coin was struck in 0.750 fine silver. The composition was changed to 0.900 fine silver in 1854. Only token amounts of the silver 3-cent coin were made after 1862.

The second 3-cent coin was made of copper-nickel; it was struck from 1865 through 1889. The copper-nickel pieces have the same diameter as a dime at 17.9 millimeters. Mintages of the copper-nickel 3-cent coin trailed off after the postage rate dropped to 2 cents in 1883.

Both 3-cent coins served purposes other than purchasing postage stamps, although they were not always popular, as noted in contemporary newspaper accounts.

In 1853, The New York Times compared the 0.750 fine silver coins to manure. “In the shop windows of exchange offices may be seen piles of them, heaped up in contemptuous indifference, and handled with a shovel, like other filth which is not lucre.”

A year before, a Times reporter had joked, “With a three-cent piece you can buy a ‘good enough’ cigar to make you feel cozy at the expense of all pedestrians within some rods of you, and a tearful rebuke from your wife, or a regular blow-out, according to how long you have been married.”

In 1880, 15 years after the copper-nickel 3-cent coin was introduced, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported, “It is suspected that the three-cent piece was invented to deceive the deacons. It can be slipped into the contribution-box as ostentatiously as a dime.”

Finally, The New York Times reported in 1883, “The three-cent piece does, indeed, serve the purposes of the dignified persons who are ashamed to be putting copper coins upon the plate at church and do not care to invest so large a sum as ten cents in that way. In the dim, religious light of a church it sufficiently resembles a dime to deceive the very elect who pass the plate.”

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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