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Hard sell? Nickel 3 cents shouldn’t be

If you are a salesman, you know that some sales are harder to make than others. Still others might be next to impossible to close. With collectors today, the nickel 3-cent coin might be in the realm of the near impossible sale. But therein lies the opportunity.

If you are a salesman, you know that some sales are harder to make than others. Still others might be next to impossible to close. With collectors today, the nickel 3-cent coin might be in the realm of the near impossible sale. But therein lies the opportunity.


Nobody remembers getting one in their change. It’s made of an alloy that seems to lose prestige year by year. It also isn’t a large coin and that puts it at a definite disadvantage with collectors who seem to prefer silver dollars and $20 gold pieces.

It is an obsolete denomination. Some people might think you are joking if you tell them about a 3-cent piece. It is easy to overlook denominations that are no longer in use.

Unfortunately, if you do overlook things like 2- and 3-cent pieces you miss a great deal of the story of the United States and its coins. That is certainly the case with the copper-nickel 3-cent piece as these frequently forgotten coins make for a fascinating collection as well as a great story. The coin is a product spawned by the great Civil War inflation and the public hoarding of nearly all coins. In addition, with limited collector interest, that also means very reasonable prices, making the copper-nickel 3-cent piece a great value.

The copper-nickel 3-cent piece is a natural to associate with other issues of the Civil War as that is when it was first issued. In reality, however, its story goes back to the period before the war. The idea of a three-cent piece was not an idea that came naturally to the United States. At the time the first authorizations of denominations were made back in April of 1792, no one had ever really considered the possibility of a three-cent piece.

A decimal system was what was being sought by the Founding Fathers. While it was true that the dollar was given a value of 100 cents, the new U.S. dollar was based on the Spanish-milled dollar, or 8-reales coin, which was widely used at the time.

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Fractional denominations were based on cutting the large coin into pieces, the half dollar was an 8 reales cut in half, or 4 bits. The quarter was a 4-reales cut in half, or 2 bits. The bit was half of a quarter, or 12-1/2 cents. Early Americans would have had to use an early dime, two large cents and a half cent coin to reach 12-1/2.

Nowhere did a 3-cent piece enter into the discussion.

The 2-cent piece had received much more attention as a possible denomination for coins of the United States. There was a proposal in 1806 to have a 2-cent piece and the only reason that proposal was defeated was that no one could really figure out an alloy for the denomination as if simply made of copper like the half cent and large cent, the coin would be far too large in size. That saw the idea placed on the back burner, but based on the fact that there were patterns made in the 1830s, the idea of a 2-cent coin was never completely dead.

It was only natural that if no one could figure out how to make a 2-cent piece they were unlikely to think in terms of a 3-cent piece. Then suddenly as a congressional committee was looking into new denominations, the three-cent piece emerged.

In fact, it was not without some discussion as there were some at the time who thought a 2-1/2 cent coin might make more sense. It might sound odd, but the idea had some logic as at the time. This would have made the Spanish bit equal to a dime plus one of the 2-1/2 cent coins.

The attraction of a 2-1/2 cent coin to make changing the Spanish bit easier can be understood. In the end, it was probably not that the 3-cent piece was seen as more logical, but rather that the goal was to remove all foreign coins including the bit from circulation, which would see the 3-cent piece be the new denomination getting approval.

At the time the 3-cent piece was approved, it filled an immediate role. The United States had a problem in the form of a national coin shortage. The shortage was a result of hoarding as the discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional silver to gold ratio and that meant that it was costing more than their face value to produce the regular silver coinage.

The Congress initially did not want to lower the amount of silver in silver coins – although in 1853 they would have to finally take that step. In 1851, however, having just lowered the postage rate to three cents, they had some political cover to announce a new 3-cent coin of just 75 percent silver as a convenient denomination to make it easy for Americans to buy stamps.

In fact, there is reason to doubt that many Americans were buying stamps, or that any of those who were would have much trouble dealing with large cents in change, but the fact is the 75 percent silver 3-cent piece was at least initially popular.

Of course at the time, there were few alternatives with silver coins being hoarded and once the silver crisis was brought to an end by reducing slightly the amount of silver in regular denominations, the new 3-cent piece was increased to 90 percent silver in 1854 to match the other silver issues.

Realistically, there was no particular need for a silver 3-cent piece once the regular coins could again circulate and that was seen in the fact that its mintages began to drop. There was another factor that no one considered at the time and that was that if there was another case of silver coin hoarding the 90 percent silver 3-cent piece would now be part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Actually, even at 75 percent silver the 3-cent piece was still a denomination that would be hoarded when the Civil War crisis came. In fact, the Civil War hoarding was so extreme that even copper-nickel cents first struck in 1857 were hoarded. It took time, but within a relatively short period of time there were virtually no coins in circulation. In attempting to make change, people ultimately resorted to using stamps, private tokens and the Treasury’s own paper Fractional Currency notes along with any number of other items.

Officials were desperate to find any coins that could circulate. Their first action was to change the composition of the cent from copper-nickel to bronze. But that didn’t happen until 1864. A 2-cent piece followed also of bronze.

There was, however, still support for copper-nickel as a usable and that seemed more logical for higher denominations. It was employed for with the 3-cent piece in 1865. Probably the man most responsible for the copper-nickel 3-cent piece was a fellow named Joseph Wharton, who was actually something of a lobbyist for the use of copper-nickel coins. Wharton’s zeal in promoting copper-nickel issues can probably be best explained by the fact that he at the time owned the nation’s only operating nickel mine.

Wharton was well known in the Congress as he had been promoting copper-nickel coins for some years. With no more copper-nickel cents he probably felt he was owed a couple favors and he got help from Rep. Kasson who chaired the House coinage committee. The idea was legislation for a 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel 3- and 5-cent coins. The 3-cent piece would come first followed by a nickel of the same composition in 1866.

Realistically, Wharton while certainly a lobbyist was doing nothing unusual. The Western mining and banking interests had pushed through the idea of a gold dollar, gold $3 and gold double eagle to use California gold. After the Civil War, the silver mining interests would push through a variety of items including Trade dollars, 20-cent pieces and finally the Morgan dollar. As it turned out, Wharton’s idea especially for the 5-cent coin worked awfully well as its composition except for a brief period of silver composition 1942-1945 during World War II is basically still in use today.

With approval gained, the new copper-nickel 3-cent piece was rushed into production as the situation when it came to making change was still at a crisis point. The Treasury hoped it would be able to stop printing 3-cent notes when the coin became available.

The high hopes for the new 3-cent piece were seen in the initial mintage of 11,382,000 pieces. The public was certainly delighted to have an alternative to tiny dirty notes. So such a high mintage was warranted.

Today, the first 1865 copper-nickel 3-cent piece is relatively available at $15.50 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $100 and an MS-65 is at $650. Those prices are basically the same for the 3-cent pieces of 1866-1869 although the mintages for these years were lower, with the 1869 at 1,604,000 bringing slightly more money in most grades except proof.

The 1870 still had a mintage of 1,335,000 pieces, but it is slightly more than the earlier dates today at $17.50 in G-4, $135 in MS-60 and $795 in MS-65. There is a good reason as if you check the Professional Coin Grading Service totals there have been about 100 examples of the 1865 in MS-65 or better graded but in the case of the 1870 the total is about one-half that amount, so it is legitimately a tougher date
The 1871 had a much lower mintage of 604,000 pieces, but it has similar prices and availability although it is slightly more in MS-65 at $800. The 1872 would have a higher mintage of 862,000, but it is more expensive than either the 1870 or 1871 at $19 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $170 with an MS-65 at $910.

The 1873 was interesting as it was in 1873 that the final silver 3-cent piece would be produced. That resulted in a copper-nickel 3-cent piece mintage of 1,173,000, which makes it in the available date group at $16.50 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $145 with an MS-65 at $1,375. In fact, the 1873 is actually less expensive in Proof-65 where it is $1,125 than it is in MS-65. That is a pattern that is seen regularly especially in the case of higher-priced MS-65 dates. There is good reason as there have been about 38 examples called MS-65 or better but the Proof-65 or better total stands at over 110. It is also worth noting that like other denominations in 1873 there are examples with a closed “3” or an open “3” as the open “3” was ordered by officials who did not like the look of the closed “3.”

In 1874 the mintage would be 790,000. While a lower total, that does not produce especially high prices. The 1874 is at $17.50 in G-4. An MS-60 is $160 while an MS-65 is $1,050 with a Proof-65 at $950.

The 1875 and 1876 are simply great values. The mintage of the 1875 was 228,000 and the 1876 was even lower at 162,000. The prices, however, in G-4 show the 1875 at just $19 while the 1876 is $20. When you consider that these two dates had lower mintages than the 1916-D Mercury dime, which is $1,000 in G-4 you have to feel you are getting excellent values. Naturally, the demand for the 1916-D Mercury dime is many times greater, but the idea of such low mintages for $20 or less has to make you feel very good about a purchase.
The same is true in MS-60 where the 1875 lists for $190 while the 1876 is at $225. In MS-65 the 1875 is $850 while the 1876 is $1,550 with PCGS reporting about 37 examples of the 1875 in MS-65 or better and just 27 of the 1876.

In the years following 1876 the fact that the copper-nickel 3-cent piece was not seeing heavy use in commerce can be seen in the mintages. It starts with the 1877 and 1878 which are proof-only dates. In the case of the 1877 the mintage is estimated at 900, which results in a Proof-65 price of $3,750 while the 2,350 mintage 1878 is priced at $1,200 in Proof-65. It is interesting as the other copper-nickel coin authorized at about the same time, the Shield nickel, was also proof-only in those two years. The PCGS total shows the 1877 at over 240 pieces in Proof-65 or better while the 1878 is over 380 in Proof-65 or better.

The 1879 is another excellent value as with a mintage of just 41,200 it is still at an affordable price today of just $65 in G-4. In MS-60 it is $320 while an MS-65 is $850. A Proof-65 can be found for $690.

It would be much the same with the 1880, although this time the mintage was even lower at 24,995 pieces, which results in a G-4 price of $100 while an MS-60 is at $375 with an MS-65 at $800 while a Proof-65 is at $700.

The 1881 was a very different situation as the 1881 saw the final large mintage for the copper-nickel 3-cent piece with a production of 1,080,575. We cannot really be certain what caused the high total, but it means low prices with a G-4 at $15.50 while an MS-60 is at just $100 with an MS-65 at $670 which is $10 cheaper than a Proof-65, which is at $680.

After 1881 there would be a string of extremely low mintage dates starting with the highest mintage of the period in the form of the 1882, which had a mintage of 25,300 and which lists for $130 in G-4 today while an MS-60 is at $425 with an MS-65 at $1,100, making a Proof-65 look like a very good deal at just $700.

The 1883 would be even lower mintage at 10,609 yet it continues the pattern of being very reasonable in terms of price at just $200 in G-4. In MS-60 you also find a solid value at $480 while an MS-65 lists for $4,850 but if that is too much you can easily find a Prf-65 which is just $690. In fact where there have been just 8 coins graded MS-65 or better by PCGS in Proof-65 or better you see there is an ample supple with PCGS reporting a total of well over 800 graded so far.

The 1884 had a very low mintage of 5,642 pieces and that would be typical of the next few years. The 1884 with that low mintage is still a solid deal at $400 in G-4 today and when you realize how low that mintage really is, you have to think that this is an excellent value numerically speaking. In MS-60 the 1884 is $800, which makes you ask why anyone would bother with a G-4 when an extra $400 would obtain a much better piece. An MS-65 is at $6,250 and they are very tough. A Proof-65 is at $700 and is much more easily found
The 1885 would have an even lower mintage of 4,790 coins, which puts a G-4 at $470, which again has to be seen as a great bargain as finding a coin with a mintage of less than 5,000 for less than $500 in G-4 is not something that happens every day. In MS-60 the 1885 is at $900 while an MS-65 is at $2,300, but a Proof-65 remains a reasonable option as a cost savings measure as they are just $720.

The 1886 was another proof-only date with a mintage put at 4,290, but that still results in a very reasonable price for a Proof-65, which lists for just $715.

In 1887 there was a mintage of 7,961 and that makes a G-4 just $305 while an MS-60 is at $540 and an MS-65 is $1,350. In the case of a proof, an 1887 is at $1,150. There is also an 1887/6 overdate that lists for $940, but in reality there is a lack of demand from collectors for it. There are only fairly modest numbers seen by the grading services when compared to regular proof dates.

The 1888 would see a mintage increase to 41,083. That naturally makes for lower prices with a G-4 at $54.00 while an MS-60 is at $315 with an MS-65 at $725. The Proof-65, however, is readily available and at a price of just $690.

The 21,561 mintage 1889 would be the final copper-nickel 3-cent piece. It does, however, keep with the tradition of being a good value as despite the low mintage it is just $90 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $320 with an MS-65 at $800. In Proof-65 it is at $690 rounding out a long string of dates where the proof is an excellent way to save money and still acquire a top quality coin.

The copper-nickel 3-cent piece by 1889 really had almost no role left in circulation. The Fractional Currency notes were long since retired and all denominations of coinage were readily available. That had been the case for a long time as the bulk of the 1880s mintages can be called token totals at best.

The collector today simply cannot lose with copper-nickel 3-cent pieces as you truly have an opportunity to acquire a number of great values on what are very historic issues. Whether you attempt a circulated set or one in Mint State or even a set of proofs, the copper-nickel 3-cent piece gives you a lot of opportunities to learn about this interesting denomination while getting great values for the dollars you spend.

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