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The Two-Cent Piece

1863 pattern two cents portrait of Washington (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1863 pattern two cents portrait of Washington (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

Although the two-cent piece was coined for less than a decade, from 1864 to 1873, this short tenure does not really illustrate its importance. Many of these coins continued to circulate and it was not until after 1890 that their use became rare in the marketplace. By the 1890s, of course, the coins were well worn but still recognizable.

Most collectors view the two-cent piece as an odd denomination because it was coined for such a short time. However, it had been under consideration as a coin on more than one occasion before late May 1864 when minting actually began at the Philadelphia Mint.

Because small change was often in short supply in the early United States, in 1806 Congressman Uri Tracy introduced a bill for a two-cent piece. The reasoning behind this proposal was that the current copper cent was too heavy and something smaller was needed. Tracy thought that a billon coin, composed of copper and a small amount of silver, would serve the nation well.

Mint Director Robert Patterson thought otherwise and wrote Representative Tracy of his differing views. In particular Patterson noted that such coins could easily be counterfeited because it would be difficult for the average citizen to determine if the piece contained the proper amount of silver or, for that matter, any silver at all. The director’s reasoned argument carried the day and Tracy withdrew his bill from consideration.

From 1806 to 1835 nothing was heard of a two-cent piece but in the latter year Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury resurrected the idea. (Woodbury also thought that a gold dollar was needed by the public.) Woodbury wanted a billon coinage for the two-cent piece and suggested that it be nine-tenths copper and one-tenth silver. In late 1835 the Treasury Secretary ordered Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, ironically the son of the director in 1806, to have dies prepared and patterns struck for both denominations.

Mint Director James Pollock

Mint Director James Pollock

Patterson in turn instructed Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht to begin work on the necessary dies. The director privately considered both denominations a waste of time but nevertheless carried out his instructions after fruitlessly trying to persuade Woodbury otherwise.

Two-cent pattern pieces were struck in 1836 to show the quality of the metal involved. Patterns were struck in both billon and pure copper to show the difficulty, as had been pointed out in 1806, of detecting counterfeits containing no silver at all. Using these, the director had little difficulty convincing friendly Congressmen that billon coinage was not the path to take. The gold-dollar idea was dealt with just as easily.

(The first billon coins to be struck as regular coinage in this country were the war-time nickels of 1942–1945 while a second example is seen in the Kennedy half dollar of 1965–1970.)

The Treasury chief was mildly irritated by the failure of his ideas but accepted defeat with good grace. The idea of a gold dollar was brought up again in 1844 but was just as quickly shelved, this time until 1849 when Congress passed a law authorizing the small gold coin.

It was not until the dark days of the Civil War that the concept of a two-cent coin once more raised itself to the forefront. This time, however, it was the mint director who pushed for the denomination, not the other way around. At the beginning of the war, in April 1861, all gold and silver coins in the South had immediately vanished into hoards or were sent abroad to pay for war materials, but in the North even gold did not leave circulation until December 1861.

Joseph Wharton

Joseph Wharton

In June 1862 silver coins in the North began to be hoarded or exported and now there was little left for the average citizen to use in the marketplace, for small items, except shinplasters (government notes for less than a dollar) and copper-nickel cents. By the early fall of 1862, in an event which baffled contemporaries, the public began to hoard even the lowly copper-nickel cent, which had an intrinsic value of only about one-half its face value.

This sudden loss of even the cent had an unexpected result when private manufacturers switched over to striking small copper pieces which passed as a cent among the public. These were the same size as the modern cent and were made of copper or bronze.

There were two kinds of these tokens, either purely patriotic or advertising a local business. Many millions of these pieces were made and served to aid the public in purchasing the necessities needed for their daily lives. Today these are called Civil War Tokens (CWT) and are collected by those with an interest in private tokens or Civil War numismatics.

Mint Director James Pollock had ordered a strong increase of cent coinage during the late summer of 1862, but the new coins seemed to drop into a bottomless pit. The hoarding became even more intense as the Civil War Tokens became more common in the marketplace. It was not long, however, before Director Pollock realized that in these tokens was the answer to the shortage of government coins.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase

In particular the tokens made from bronze (95 percent copper, the rest tin and zinc) caught Pollock’s attention. By the summer of 1863 Pollock was openly lobbying for a bronze cent and two-cent piece but his suggestion ran up against the powerful politics of the nickel industry.

Pennsylvania nickel mine owner Joseph Wharton was just then preparing to go into full-scale production and taking nickel out of the cent alloy did not go well. To protect his future profits, Wharton fought with every device at his command in order to keep the government from eliminating nickel from the coinage. Pollock, with his revolutionary ideas about a bronze government coinage, became Wharton’s chief opponent.

Knowing that pattern pieces would be more effective than the written word, Pollock ordered Chief Engraver James B. Longacre to execute special dies for a two-cent piece, to be twice the weight of the cent. Because this was considered urgent, Longacre used a mixture of old hubs and new designs in readying his pattern dies. By the end of November the dies were completed, and early December saw Pollock sending samples of the two-cent piece to his superior in Washington, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.

The design on the reverse was roughly the same on all the patterns, although the style of the denomination varied somewhat on the different dies. There were two principal obverses, one with the head of George Washington and the other a shield surmounted by a laurel wreath. The latter also had a scroll above with various mottoes. These included GOD AND OUR COUNTRY, GOD OUR TRUST, and IN GOD WE TRUST.

1863 pattern two-cent piece, shield design. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1863 pattern two-cent piece, shield design. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

These religious mottoes were not something new to the pattern coinage executed during the Civil War. In 1861 a Pennsylvania minister had written Secretary Chase about the need for such a phrase on the coinage, given the perilous times. The idea caught Chase’s attention and he asked Director Pollock to prepare the necessary pattern pieces for his examination. Until 1863, however, the only such patterns were for the gold and silver coins.

Regular issue 1864 two cents with large motto. (Images courtesy of Stacks-Bowers)

Regular issue 1864 two cents with large motto. (Images courtesy of Stacks-Bowers)

Even though bronze two-cent patterns had been prepared by the end of 1863, Pollock made little headway against the forces allied with nickel magnate Joseph Wharton. By early March 1864, the director had begun to think that all was lost and that the two-cent piece and bronze cent were not going to happen. At just this time, however, Secretary Chase decided to throw the full weight of the Lincoln Administration behind the Pollock proposals.

Wharton’s allies did their best to torpedo the new ideas but after sharp debate, especially in the House of Representatives, the nickel forces threw in the towel and the legislation advanced. On April 22 President Lincoln signed the bill into law; for the first time a two-cent piece would be struck by the United States government for public use.

Pollock had sent several designs to the Treasury, including those with the head of Washington, but he personally preferred a shield design on the obverse. For the reverse the director thought that a simple wreath enclosing the value was the best that could be done under the circumstances and time constraints. Secretary Chase listened to his mint director and chose the ornamental design with shield and laurel.

There seems to be a general belief among collectors that the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was mandated by the new law to be on the two-cent piece, but this is not quite the case. The law stipulated that the mint director was to choose the devices and mottoes with the approval of the Treasury. It did not take very long for the agreement to be reached and the dies for the two-cent piece were soon ready for use.

The most urgent need was for the new bronze cent coins, but Pollock saw to it that the two-cent piece received its fair share of attention. The first pieces of this new denomination were delivered in late May and by the end of 1864 some 20 million had been made and delivered into the hands of a waiting public. Roughly twice that many bronze cents were made in the same time period.

1864 small motto (left) and 1864 large motto (right). (Images courtesy of heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1864 small motto (left) and 1864 large motto (right). (Images courtesy of heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

The first patterns with IN GOD WE TRUST had much smaller lettering for the motto than those on later dies. By accident, or perhaps just using any dies that were available, the Mint struck a limited number of Small Motto two-cent pieces during May and June 1864. Book value in XF–40, for example is about $725 according to the price guide appearing in Coins Magazine.

On the other hand, the Large Motto variety, coined in heavy quantities, is easily obtained in just about any grade for a reasonable sum. In XF–40, the same grade as the above example, there is an estimated tab of only about $50. Many of these were saved by the public as a first year of issue, accounting for their ready availability today in the numismatic marketplace.

Proofs exist for both varieties of the 1864 coinage, but the Small Motto version is an extreme rarity, carrying a tab of about $85,000 in Proof–65. Even the regular issue in the grade carries a $4,000 price tag.

In 1864 proof two-cent pieces were issued as part of a ‘silver’ proof set or could be purchased individually for a small sum. Collectors who had ordered silver proof sets prior to June 1864 made up the difference by buying single pieces later in the year. After 1864 the proof two-cent pieces were available either as part of the silver set or included in a minor set, which varied as the new copper-nickel denominations, three cents and five cents, were added in 1865 and 1866, respectively.

The coin shortage was still so severe in 1865 that two-cent pieces continued to pour from the presses in considerable quantities. It was not until the late summer, after war’s end, that mintages began to catch up with public demand. Nearly 14 million of these coins were struck in 1865, making this date almost as common as 1864. Standard references assign the two dates, except in proof condition, about the same values.

One variety of the 1865 that has been controversial is the so-called 1865/4 overdate. Specialists now generally agree that this particular overdate is actually a re-punched date giving the appearance of an overdate.

Once the war began winding down in the late winter of 1864–1865, Wharton and his allies decided that the time was ripe for another new coin, this time of copper-nickel and worth three cents. In March 1865 the necessary legislation was signed by the President and new coin was soon being struck by the Philadelphia Mint. It was also struck in large quantities and to a certain extent took the place of the two-cent piece, lessening the demand for the latter coin.

1872 was the last date struck for circulation. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1872 was the last date struck for circulation. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

In May 1866 Wharton struck again and this time a five-cent piece in copper-nickel was authorized. This new denomination proved extremely popular with the public and further cut into the need for two-cent pieces. The mintage of the two-cent piece dropped from 13.6 million in 1865 to under 3 million in 1867, a dramatic change. In 1870 it fell to under a million while the final year for circulation issues in 1872 was a relatively tiny 65,000 pieces.

Prices are reasonable at the present time for coins of 1864 through 1871, but 1872 surpasses values for the 1864 Small Motto. This perhaps indicates that many of the 1872s were never released to the public and instead melted when the denomination was abolished in 1873.

Another of the debunked overdates is 1869/8, which is the result of die crumbling and not a figure 9 punched over the figure 8.

One of the odder Mint tasks in the early 1870s was cleaning coins and then re-issuing them to the public. Quite a few two-cent pieces were so treated, along with numerous other base coins.

1873 open 3 (left) and 1873 closed 3 (right). The 1873 two-cent piece, struck only in proof for collectors, has two different kinds of the figure 3. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

1873 open 3 (left) and 1873 closed 3 (right). The 1873 two-cent piece, struck only in proof for collectors, has two different kinds of the figure 3. (Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions www.ha.com)

With the declining mintages and lessening public demand, it was only a matter of time before the two-cent piece was abandoned. In February 1873 this came to pass but the two-cent piece was not the only victim. The silver dollar, half dime, and silver three cent piece all met a similar fate.

In early 1873, before the law took effect on April 1, the Mint produced proof two-cent pieces as part of the silver and minor proof sets. It has been estimated that more than a thousand pieces were struck and distributed although exact numbers were lost long ago when the relevant Mint records were destroyed.

This last mintage is interesting in that 1873 coins come with a Closed or Open figure 3 in the date. The Open 3 is the more valuable of the two, but not by all that much.