3 Cent Coin

Posted by on November 9, 2011

Coin Weight (g) Composition Silver Melt Value Full Melt Value
Three Cents (1851-1853) 0.8 75% silver, 25% copper
Three Cents (1854-1873) 0.75 90% silver, 10% copper
1861 Three Cent Silver Coin (photo by Northern Lights Numismatics*)

1861 Three Cent Silver Coin (photo by Northern Lights Numismatics*)

The United States minted two different versions of the 3 Cent Coin ($0.03) - one silver and the other nickel. All came from the Philadelphia mint except in 1851 they were also struck at the New Orleans mint, these are marked with an “o” on the reverse left of the opening of the large “C”.  This was the first time a coin less than $0.05 was minted outside of Philadelphia.

The silver 3 cent coin was minted from 1851 to 1873.  The silver content is only 75% and 25% copper for the years 1851 to 1853 and these weigh 0.8g.  The rest of the run, 1854 to 1873, is the more customary 90% with 10% copper, and these weigh 0.75g.  All of these are 14mm in diameter, the smallest of coins minted by the United States. 


Over the years the designer, James Barton Longacre, changed the design creating three different varieties.  The edge is plain throughout all these minting.

Variety 1 (no outline): was minted in 1851 through 1853; the obverse has a six pointed star with a National Shield in its center (no outline) and “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” encircling the top of the coin and the date encircling the bottom.  The reverse has a large “III” in the center with a large decorative “C” around it and 13 stars encircle all of this.  Only a dozen or so Proofs were made of this variety.

Variety 2 (double outline): was minted in 1854 through 1858 (with the start of the 90% silver composition); on the obverse a double line outlines of the original star.  On the reverse an olive sprig is added above the “III” in the “C” and 3 ribbon-bond arrows are added under the “III” and in the “C”.  There were about 400 Proofs minted of this variety.

Variety 3 (single outline): was minted in 1859 through 1873; on the obverse is a single line outlines of the star.  The obverse is the same as Variety 2.  There was over 10,000 Proofs minted of this variety.

These coins were initially released to support sales of United States postage stamps.  The stamps had dropped from $0.05 to $0.03.  The lower silver content was an attempt to keep people from hording them for the silver.  In 1853 Congress lowered the weights of all silver coins and switched the three-cent coin to the 90% silver content, therefore variation 2 was created.  The strikes of the ‘double outline’ was problematic so it was changed to the ‘single outline’ along with lettering modifications. Variation 3 finally met James Barton Longacre approval and many (ranging from 460 a year up to 1,000 a year) Proof coins were struck of this third design variation.

When the civil war broke out the large mintage of these coins dropped dramatically in order to keep silver in the United States Treasury.  Most of the general circulation strikes were kept in the Treasury’s vault and melted down in 1873.  Only Proof three-cent silver coins were produced in 1873.  Circulated silver three-cent coins from 1865 through 1872 are collectible in even very worn condition.  There are some other irregularities that are not covered here.  For grading purposes the first points of wear are the top portion of the star on the obverse and the Roman numerals on the reverse.

In 1865 James Barton Longacre designed a copper/nickel 3 cent coinfor circulation so the United States could hold onto as much silver as possible.  These coins are considerably different than their silver counterpart and were used until 1889.  Congress had also had denominational notes to be issued during these years in order to maintain silver reserves.

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