American 3-Cent Coin & Nickel: What’s the Difference?

What is the strangest coin you’ve ever encountered? There are certainly quite a few unique and intriguing coins in the world. Two of the most unusual coins in American history are denominated 3-cents; the silver 3-cent coin and the 3-cent nickel. Today both coins are fairly scarce. The silver 3-cent coin only ever saw mintages of about 37 million, and many of these were hoarded for their silver content during the Civil War. The 3-cent nickel, however, only reached 32 million. These coins were scarce even in their prime, so most saw lots of use in commerce and after their recall, many were destroyed. Those mintages alone mean that the silver 3-cent coin and the 3-cent nickel are real collector’s treasures today. 

The silver 3-cent coin, often referred to as a “fishscale” or a “trime.”

A 3-cent coin in general seems like an odd denomination, almost counter-intuitive. Some numismatists have even said it sounds as phony as the “three dollar bill.” It’s important to remember that the first 3-cent coin was introduced in 1851 when postage decreased from five to only three cents, so it was largely implemented to provide quick and easy payment of postage! The 3-cent silver piece was also the smallest and lightest coin ever minted by the U.S. With a diameter of only 14mm (approximately a 1/2 inch) and a weight of 4/5ths of a gram, it certainly earned that title.

In its day, the 3-cent silver coin was sometimes referred to as a “trime” or “fishscale,” because of its dark toning and small size. It was first minted from 1851 to 1853 with a composition of .750 silver and .250 copper. This is what led to the dark toning – the silver was debased by adding such high amounts of copper.  In 1854 the makeup was changed to .900 silver and .100 copper.

Because of silver shortages during the Civil War, widespread hoarding of all silver coins occurred, and these 3-cent silver coins were also affected. The Treasury attempted various alternatives to solve the problem, eventually settling on issuing fractional currency notes.  These paper notes were never very popular as they were reportedly easy to lose and unwieldy in large amounts.

The 3-cent nickel, introduced as a stopgap measure to prevent silver hoarding during the Civil War.

Then in 1865, the introduction of the 3-cent nickel provided an answer to the issue of the unwieldy notes. The three-cent nickel was composed of .750 copper and .250 nickel and was larger than the existing silver coin of the same denomination. This 3-cent nickel was never intended as a permanent issue or to be valuable, only as a “stopgap” measure until wartime silver hoarding had ceased. The 3-cent nickel continued to be produced until 1889, 16 years after the three-cent silver coin was discontinued.

These coins are not just unusual because of their denomination. From 1865 to 1867, both the silver and the nickel 3-cent coins were minted, which presents an interesting question to both numismatists and coin collectors; why in the world would the Treasury decide to mint two different coins of the same denomination for three years? The answer isn’t really very clear.

Many numismatists believe that the 3-cent nickel was only discontinued in 1889 because it shared the same diameter as the dime (the ten-cent silver coin) which caused confusion in the newly introduced mechanical vending machines. Another factor in the 3-cent nickel’s demise is that in 1883, the letter postage rate dropped from 3 cents to 2 cents, thus removing the primary justification for this coin and its silver predecessors.

Although the 3-cent coin and the 3-cent nickel were introduced for largely the same purpose, each coin carries its own unique history, both in terms of American history and numismatic history. Part of preserving history, on a personal level, is about picking up those things you find intriguing, and the 3-cent silver and nickel coins are both carry extremely unique stories within their histories, which is why these coins are such a valuable addition to your collection. You can help keep history alive by making sure to carry on the legacy of these coins and passing their stories on.

Amanda Paulger-Foran, for ICCoin.com

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