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Good Cents

June 2024
1min read


The February/March 2001 “Time Machine” refers to the silver three-cent piece as “perhaps the most useless American coin ever.” Although there have been a number of useless denominations—the three-dollar piece, the two-cent piece, the half-cent piece, and especially the twenty-cent piece—the silver three-cent piece and successor nickel three-cent piece are not among them.

The first half-century of U.S. coinage was largely a failure; U.S. gold and silver coins were undervalued and flowed out of the country to be melted almost as soon as they were minted. This left Americans with a nondescript assortment of wildcat bank notes and underweight foreign coins. The silver three-cent piece was introduced in 1851, after the postage rate had been decreased to three cents. It was the first subsidiary coin, worth only about two and a half cents as silver bullion, and thus didn’t suffer the fate of other silver coins. The experiment was successful enough that two years later the other silver coins were reduced in weight to become subsidiary coins.

Far from being useless, the three-cent coins paid for postage. Although the silver three-cent piece was only on the stage for a decade, it was the first modern U.S. coin and the first successful one. It deserves better recognition.

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