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Two-cent set one every collector can do

You get more than your two-cents’  worth with a collection of two-cent pieces as this lesser known denomination has truly a fascinating story.

The best kept secret perhaps is the fact that the two-cent piece is a collection almost everyone can afford. When you consider the coins you get and how they reflect on a most interesting period in American history, the idea of a two-cent piece collection seems like one that should be much more popular than it is today.

This low profile is a benefit if you do attempt a two-cent piece collection as right now you will find that in assorted grades two-cent pieces really are good values as well as interesting coins to study.

One of the things you quickly learn with the two-cent piece is that it is not a large collection. As the denomination was produced only at Philadelphia, that makes its roughly one decade of production a limited group of coins, but without branch mint issues which are frequently tough from the period, it keeps the cost of a complete set down.

That said, in that short period, the two-cent piece gained a lasting place in numismatic history while helping out in an emergency. Its lasting place in history came not by design but simply by timing as it would be the first coin of the United States to have the motto IN GOD WE TRUST when it was introduced in 1864 and at least that part of the two-cent piece design remains very much in place today.
Even though the two-cent piece did not turn out to be as successful as some might have hoped, the denomination ironically had been under consideration for a long time before finally being approved. It was probably a case where having a large cent to compare to Britain’s penny, a copper two-cent piece seemed natural to some to compare to Britain’s copper tuppence.

At least in terms of the initial authorization of denominations, the two-cent piece might have seemed natural, but it was not included. It did not, however, take long for someone to suggest that the denomination should be considered as there was a proposal in Congress in 1806 for a two-cent piece with a copper and silver alloy. It was an interesting idea, but the time was not right for a couple of reasons.

The first problem with the timing was that the United States Mint was simply not ready to take on another denomination. It had only been just two years earlier in 1804 when the production of silver dollars and gold eagles had been suspended.

The reason was that there was a national coin shortage and the Mint was spending too much of its limited time and resources producing the two largest denominations for speculators. The gold coin was too heavy and the silver too light. Money could be made gaming the system. Deposit silver at the Mint, have it coined and then trade the coins for the gold of the same face value. Ship the gold abroad for melting and start all over with the profits.

Simply suspending production of the gold eagle and silver dollar did not solve all its problems as the Mint still had limited capacity and it would be a long time before the facility would be able to make reasonable numbers of all the denominations already authorized without taking on any new ones.

The two-cent piece also presented a unique problem in terms of its composition. The large cent was already large and creating a copper coin would produce a coin about the size of a rock. Moreover, in 1806 copper supplies were far from secure as the best supply of copper was from England and things were not always smooth politically with England so the supply could easily be cut off.

Mixing in a little silver would reduce the coin’s size, but silver supplies were not much more reliable and with the technology of the day the Mint Director expressed concern that the proposed alloy might prove to be difficult to work with especially if it was ever desired to melt the coins down and extract the silver. That concern seemed to be enough to put the idea on a back burner for some time.

Over time, however, things did improve at least in terms of the national coin shortage and the Mint’s capacity. That was helped in 1830 when gold was discovered in Georgia and North Carolina and that resulted in the authorization of new branch mints in Dahlonega, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., and New Orleans, La. While Dahlonega and Charlotte would only produce gold coins, any added coin production would take pressure off the main facility in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia had other help as in the mid-1830s. A new steam press would arrive and it was shortly afterward that the two-cent piece idea was raised again as Mint Director Robert Patterson whose father ironically had been the Mint Director back in 1806 when the proposal for the denomination first appeared had Christian Gobrecht make patterns for the denomination. Once again, however, the timing was not right and nothing came of the patterns.

In fact it would take until 1849 before any new denominations were authorized by the United States and the two-cent piece was not the first. Discovery of gold in California made the authorization of a gold dollar and double eagle seem like a relatively harmless decision and it had the advantage of using some of the suddenly more than ample gold supply.

The discovery of gold, however, caused a problem in that the traditional gold-to-silver ratio was upset yet again. The result was that it was suddenly costing more than the face value simply to produce silver coins. The Congress needed to act but instead of lowering the amount of silver slightly in all silver coins, what the Congress did was to authorize a 75 percent silver three-cent piece. The idea was basically a stop-gap measure as the silver situation saw widespread hoarding, but a 75 percent silver the three-cent piece could at least help in a growing national coin shortage.

Eventually the Congress was forced to act reducing slightly the amount of silver in regular issues in 1853 while at the same time raising the silver in the three-cent piece to 90 percent. That was followed by the authorization of a $3 gold piece with the basic reason once again being that it would use gold and probably cause no trouble. Like the three-cent piece, the $3 gold piece would never really play a major role in circulation when it first appeared in 1854 although there probably was some use of the new denomination in the West.

While the Mint was able to produce enough coins to justify new denominations, the matter of a potential alloy for the two-cent piece still stood in the way of any approval for it. That problem took a step forward with a seemingly unrelated development, which was the change to a smaller copper-nickel cent in 1857.

The thinking behind the new smaller cent was that the public would accept a coin whose metallic value was worth significantly less than its face value. At the time, that was radical thinking as historically if anything, the coins of the United States often had been slightly too valuable in terms of their metal value. The release and general acceptance of a cent worth significantly less than the old copper large cents opened the door to the idea of a two-cent piece not made of silver or not of an impractical size. That would prove to be crucial in the eventual approval of a two-cent piece.

In 1857, however, when the new cent was introduced, there was not a real need for a two-cent piece, It had to wait but its time came in 1864. The situation in 1864 was dire when it came to coins. The Civil War had seen the public on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line hoard whatever coins they could find.

It was not just the expected gold and silver coins that disappeared, but even copper-nickel cents did as well. Suddenly there was no way to make change in routine commercial transaction as all the coins had been hoarded. Stamps were tried and so were tokens. Fractional Currency was authorized in the North and used although it was never very popular. Dramatic steps needed to be taken with the first being to change the copper-nickel cent to bronze. That idea was joined by the authorization of a two-cent piece which would also be bronze.

With no more concern about the metal value of an issue and with a national coin shortage, especially in lower denominations, the idea of a two-cent piece sailed through the Congress in 1864, putting pressure on the Mint to have a design completed and the coin put into production quickly.

While the new bronze cents were being produced in large numbers, two-cent piece patterns were tried and there were interesting ideas including one that would have featured George Washington,  but eventually the shield design was approved.

A more interesting part of the process involved the motto. A couple years earlier a Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania had written the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase suggesting that some mention of God should be added to the coins. Chase agreed and a number of phrases were considered before a final decision was made that the motto would be IN GOD WE TRUST.

The two-cent piece would be the first denomination where the motto could be added without requiring special work and expense and as a result it became the historic first coin of the United States to carry the motto, which remains on the coins to the present day.

There is no question that things were rushed back in 1864 with the Mint trying desperately to produce large numbers of copper coins simply to keep commerce from bogging down totally.

When things are hurried sometimes corners are cut and errors made. The success of the bronze cent probably added fuel to the fire in terms of pressure to get the new two-cent piece into circulation in a hurry and that saw the 1864 two-cent piece emerge with both a large and small motto, with the motto being much closer to the lower banner edges on the large motto.

What apparently happened to produce both large and the much tougher small motto is that in the haste of the moment pattern dies were pressed into service and they had the small motto. Their total in the large mintage of 1864 was small resulting in the small motto having prices of $140 in G-4 as opposed to just $16.50 for the large motto. In MS-60 the small motto is $1,125 as opposed to just $84 for the large motto while an MS-65 small motto is $7,500 while a large motto MS-65 is at $1,650.

There were also proofs and there the large motto is tough at $3,950 in Proof-65, but the small motto is a real rarity at $75,000, with the best estimates suggesting that only 15 to 20 examples may be known. That obscures the fact that the large motto is a better two-cent piece proof, too. It is more costly than any other two-cent piece proof except the proof- only 1873.
The 1864 mintage would prove to be the largest total for the two-cent piece. In 1865 the Mint would turn some of its attention to other new issues as well as more cents and the two-cent piece total would drop to 13,640,000.

Almost every year that followed, the total dropped lower and lower. The 1866 total was just 3,177,000 and the totals would continue to drop until 1873 when the final year of production saw a proof-only mintage as basically in less than a decade the two-cent piece had helped to fill a need at a time of crisis. The crisis passed and the public didn’t really like it.

Many would be ultimately melted by the government as a needed supply of copper. The two-cent piece shows a relative lack of collector interest. The result is many reasonable prices.

The dates from 1864-1869 whether having a mintage of nearly 20 million as was the case for the 1864 or 1.5 million as was the case with the 1869, trade in a very narrow price range with G-4 examples ranging basically from $16.50 to $20.

The lower mintage 1870 with a mintage of 861,250 is $31 while the still lower 1871 with a mintage of 721,250 is just $43 in G-4.

In Mint State the prices are also fairly close. The lower mintage 1870 and 1871 are $295 and $285 in MS-60, respectively, but all the others except for errors fall in a range from $84 to $165. In MS-65 the prices move much higher.

The one exception to the relatively narrow range of prices is the 1872 and there is good reason as the 1872 had a mintage of just 65,000 pieces. Such a mintage suggests that there was really no need for additional two-cent pieces at the time but it does make the 1872 a better date today with a G-4 price of $325. In MS-60 the 1872 lists for $1,500 while in MS-65 it is currently at $8,850. For those wanting a high grade but lower cost option there is the possibility of a proof as a Proof-65 lists for just $2,950.

The lower proof price might surprise many but it is actually typical of assorted denominations at the time as especially for a denomination made only in Philadelphia like the two-cent piece it was popular at the time to simply acquire a proof from the Mint every year. While the mintages might be low, the proofs were going only to collectors and as a result they received much better care and stood a much better chance for survival to the present day.

In a number of cases the proof of a given date is much more available than an MS-65.

The final two-cent piece was the proof-only 1873. The general belief is that the 1873 had a mintage of 1,100 pieces divided roughly equally between open and closed “3” varieties. It has been suggested that the open “3” might be a restrike, but that is unlikely as it was routine in 1873 for all denominations to have open and closed “3” varieties as officials when examining the initial coins of 1873 decided that they did not like the closed “3” appearance and that resulted in a change to an open “3” even for the two-cent piece that was only available as a proof.

The two varieties are priced roughly the same and that is not surprising as what was the most likely division between the two would have perhaps 500 of one and 600 of the other. In all probability one variety appeared in the so-called “nickel” set that featured just lower denominations while the other variety was found in the “silver” set that is thought to have had the larger 600 coin mintage as that set included the silver proof denominations as well. That would make for a fairly even division between open and closed “3” varieties as is expected and as is seen in the numbers and prices today.

Today the 1873 stands as the most challenging date in a two-cent piece collection, but one which is not as expensive as might be expected considering it was proof only. In Proof-65 it lists for $4,250 and $5,500, respectively. For a mintage of 1,100 combined, those are not high.

In fact the 1873 as well as the reasonable price for a Proof-65 1872 does point to the very real possibility of assembling a set in proof. The 1864 small motto would be a major stumbling block, but a set with the large motto 1864 would be possible and not as expensive as might be expected. There are not many sets of United States coins that can actually be completed in proof, but the two-cent piece has to be on that very short list.

Most collectors will stick to coins in the G-4 to AU-50 grades, at least initially, and then perhaps upgrade.

Whatever approach you take to a two-cent piece collection, there is little dispute that it is an historic and very interesting denomination. With reasonable prices today a collection can be formed very quickly, giving you a real chance to complete a collection from the Civil War era. As an historic coin that really came into being because of the problem created by the war, the two-cent piece is not only a good collection but a real piece of American history.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition

 

 

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