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Once there were 'nickel cents'

During the Civil War hoarding of all forms of hard money was prevalent. Even the lowly cent was hoarded--so much so that substitutes, including privately issued tokens that resembled cents and government paper versions, filled the void.

In 1862, several newspapers reported that the U.S. Mint was coining $2,500 "nickel cents" each day "as every shopkeeper and businessman knows them to be scarce." The first small cents, introduced into general circulation in 1857, were minted in a copper-nickel composition referred to in the press as "nickel cents." These encompassed the Flying Eagle and the first of the Indian Head cents.

By the late 1860s, with the war over, the situation had changed dramatically with regard to the cent, as it was now in abundance and considered by many a nuisance. Flying Eagle cents were derisively called 'buzzard" cents.

In 1867, with nickel being useful for the nickel three-cent piece and the new nickel five-cent piece, the Treasury put out a call for the nickel cents to be exchanged through the Mint for three-cent pieces and/or five-cent pieces. In announcing the request that Americans turn over their nickel cents, several newspapers tagged the story: "Nickel cents called in."

The June 1, 1867 issue of the New York Herald-Tribune reported that the Treasury secretary had authorized the Mint director with "a view of reducing the quantity of cents in circulation and obtaining a supply of nickel in convenient form, to purchase the nickel cents, paying the nominal value in three and five-cent pieces, which will be commenced on the 10th of June under the following rules:

First: Persons sending or bringing the nickel cents will receive a certificate of the weight thereof, and the amount payable in three or five cent pieces or both, as they may desire, and with the indorsement thereon, such certificates will be paid as soon as the coins are ready.

Second: They must be careful not to send any but the kind mentioned, which are readily known by the color and size, and by the dates 1857 to 1864.

Third: The pieces will be taken, not by count, but by avoirdupois or grocer's weight. No lot will be received under 10 pounds, and no spoiled, illegible, or doubtful pieces will be taken.

Fourth: The reasonable expense of the transportation of three cent pieces in sums of $30, and the five cent coins in sums of $50 or upward, to any point accessible by railroad or steamboat, will be paid by the Mint.

Fifth: This arrangement will be revoked as soon as it is found the issue of three and five cents is likely to become too large, or that the abatement of cents is sufficient. The sole object of this operation is to confer a public benefit, and none of the cents herein mentioned have any special value."

The last part was apparently because, with the passage of time, some thought the early pieces had an extra premium as collectibles. Today, though not rare, they are considered highly collectible, but back not everyone appreciated these first small cents.

The story of American coinage is fascinating and sometimes skewed. Check out Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins at: