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Odd Denomination Once Thought a Good Idea
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
June 10, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The Two-Cent piece seemed like a good idea. It would help relieve a Civil War coin shortage, simplify small purchases and ease the Mint’s workload by reducing the demand for cent. Production of two-cent pieces began in 1864. Dissatisfaction with the design and the public’s unwillingness to adapt to the new denomination ended its life in 1873. Memories of the failed experiment ran deep. Efforts to revive the two-cent piece in the 20th century were unsuccessful.

Mint and Treasury officials kicked around the idea of a two-cent piece for a long time before it became a reality. Mint Director Robert Patterson proposed a two-cent piece on Dec. 12, 1836. In 1863, Mint Director James Pollock recommended a bronze two-cent piece to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.

The same law that authorized the bronze cent provided for a bronze two-cent piece. The April 21, 1864, issue of the New York Times reported, “During the evening session [of Congress], the bill for a new coinage of one and two-cent pieces was passed.” It became law the following day. To prevent two-cent pieces from becoming a nuisance, they were legal tender only up to the sum of 20 cents.

The 1864 law amended the 1857 “Act Relating to Foreign Coins and the Coinage of Cents at the Mint of the United States.” It established a precise weight for the two-cent piece and the permissible deviation:

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“There shall be from time to time struck and coined at the Mint a two-cent piece of the same [bronze ] composition [as the cent], the standard weight of which shall be 96 grains, or one-fifth of one troy ounce, with no greater deviation than four grains to each piece.”

Mint engraver James Longacre designed the two-cent piece. Some 1863-dated patterns depicted George Washington and bore the inscription “God And Country.” Others dated 1863 and 1864, struck in several different metals or alloys, resembled the design that made it into production.

At an auction in 1877, a nickel two-cent piece, described as “scarce,” brought 50 cents. An 1864 pattern struck in “mixed metal” realized 15 cents.

The production two-cent piece consisted of 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc. Many people mistakenly thought it contained nickel. When the nickel five-cent piece made its debut in 1866, the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette said it was “a trifle larger than the late two-cent coin made of the same ingredients.”

In August 1867, a Philadelphia newspaper said, “The one and two-cent coins now made at our Mint are of bronze and do not contain nickel, as many persons suppose.”

The two-cent piece measured 23 millimeters in diameter, slightly smaller than the quarter dollar. The obverse depicted an American shield, draped with laurel branches, surmounting crossed arrows. The reverse may have been the better-looking side. The April 23, 1864, issue of the Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye said:

“The new two-cent piece looks like gold. A wreath of wheat, surrounding ‘2’ and around which are the words ‘United States of America’ form one side.”

Critics were unimpressed. The April 1, 1867, issue of The Galaxy complained, “Two-cent pieces do not look like coins, but rather like poor medals or tokens.”

The two-cent piece was the first coin with “In God We Trust.” It appeared on a ribbon above the shield. Rev. Mark Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pa., suggested that coins have a religious motto in 1861. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase liked the idea. After considering several mottoes, he decided on “In God We Trust.”

But did Watson deserve really credit for the motto, or should it have gone to an anonymous Maryland farmer? The March 24, 1892, issue of the Sterling, Ill., Evening Gazette claimed:

“The motto ‘In God We Trust,’ which is now stamped upon all gold and silver coins of the United States, was suggested by an old farmer living in Maryland. This conscientious Christian gentleman thought that our currency should indicate in some way the Christian character of our nation, which, he argued, could be best done by putting a motto upon our coins expressing a national reliance on divine support in governmental affairs.

“It was in 1861, when S.P. Chase was Secretary of the Treasury, that the man wrote to Washington respecting his pet idea. His letter was referred to Mint Director Pollock, who discussed the question in his report of 1863.

“‘Pollock and Chase were in favor of introducing the motto at once, but Congress have the suggestion no attention whatever. In his next annual report, Pollock again referred to the matter, this time in theological argument, saying, ‘The motto suggested, ‘God Our Trust,’ is taken from our national hymn, ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ The sentiment is familiar to every citizen of our country.

“The time is propitious: ’tis an hour of national peril. Let us reverently acknowledge his sovereignty, and let our coinage declare our trust in God.’

“A two-cent bronze piece was authorized the following year, and on April 23, 1864, the first United States coin was stamped with the legend ‘In God We Trust.’”

The Philadelphia Mint struck “large motto” and “small motto” two-cent pieces in 1864. The scarce “small motto” variety is valued at $285 in Fine-12.

The Mint turned out nearly 20 million two-cent pieces in 1864, but it was downhill from there. In 1865, production fell to fewer than 14 million, including “fancy 5” and “plain 5” varieties. In Fine-12, both are valued at around $20, according to the Coins price guide.

As the two-cent piece’s popularity tumbled, so did production. The Mint struck fewer than 3 million two-cent pieces in 1867. Back then, no one collected varieties. But future generations would come to appreciate the 1867 doubled-die obverse, currently valued at $165 in Fine-12.

Production of two-cent pieces barely topped 2.8 million in 1868. In 1869 it plunged to around 1.5 million. Coins lists an 1869 repunched 18 variety at $75 in Fine-12, and an 1869/8 die crack at $375.

In his 1869 message to Congress, President Ulysses S. Grant relayed the Treasury secretary’s recommendation: “There is no reason for continuing the coinage of the two-cent piece, and the law authorizing its issue should be repealed.”

Congress was slow to comply. The Mint struck more than 800,000 two-cent pieces in 1870, and 700,000-plus in 1871. Today, a F-12 1870 is valued at $60, and an 1871 at $70.

In 1872, the final year two-cent pieces were struck for circulation, 65,000 were minted. A F-12 survivor is valued at close to $700.

Only proof two-cent pieces were struck in 1873. Examples struck early in the year had an almost closed 3 that was easily mistaken for an 8. Later 1873 two-cent pieces had an open 3. An estimated 600 “open 3” and 500 “closed 3” proofs were struck. The April 6, 1882, issue of the Marion Star said, “A fine specimen of the two-cent copper coin of 1873 is worth 50 cents.” The same coin today would command more than $1,500.

The Coinage Act of 1873 eliminated the two-cent piece. The April 3, 1873, issue of The Daily Eagle reported, “The new coinage law, while it retains the one, three and five-cent pieces, abolishes the present two-cent piece.”

However, two-cent pieces circulated for decades. The Feb. 25, 1883, issue of the Wilmington, Del. Sunday Morning Star complained:

“If a man’s pocket contains 50 five-cent pieces and one two-cent piece, and he is in the middle of a crowd diving for an elevated train as though each one had but a moment to live and wanted to die on the train, he will certainly pull that two-cent piece out. Then he will drop it back, and in endeavoring to fetch up half a dime, fish out the two-cent piece again. The only way he ever gets out the half dime is to haul out a handful of coins at once.”

Still, two-cent pieces could be useful. In 1884, the Farm Journal said:

“We have several suggestions in regard to removing paint and putty from window glass. They are to ‘Rub the glass briskly with a two-cent piece or nickel, which will remove all dry paint and putty.’”

Long after production of two-cent pieces ended, teachers found them helpful in the classroom. The 1898 edition of The First Steps in Number, by George Albert Wentworth and E.M. Reed, presented two-cent word problems in arithmetic:

“I have a three-cent piece, a two-cent piece, and one cent; how much money have I?

“If I owe you seven cents, and pay you in two-cent pieces as far as I can, what else must I give you? How many two-cent pieces do I pay you?

“Three two-cent pieces are how much money?”

In the collecting world, two-cent pieces possessed curiosity value but no significant premium for most dates. The Nov. 16, 1897, issue of the Daily Iowa Capital said:

“To those persons who hunt for odd coins to preserve as curiosities, the two-cent piece is one of the oldest in circulation.... The two-cent piece was discontinued in the famous act of 1873, of which so much has been heard of late. When, therefore, any person finds any of these old-fashioned coins in his change, he had better slip them into his pocket as curiosities.”

In a classified ad in the October 1919 issue of Popular Mechannics, Homer Schultz of Union Star, Mo., offered his coin catalog and a two-cent piece for 10 cents.

The two-cent letter rate made two-cent pieces convenient for postal patrons, even if the coins were not a welcome sight to rural carriers. Jesse Homan wrote in the Nov. 22, 1905, issue of the Corning, Ia. Adams County Free Press, “It is very unpleasant for the letter carrier to take his mittens off and expose his fingers to the cold, with the mercury around zero, to put a stamp on a letter that has been placed in a rural box with a two-cent piece to pay postage.”

In the early 1900s, newspapers urged the government to revive the two-cent piece. The September-October 1909 issue of The Numismatist said:

“Send us a coin that will be the value of a letter postage stamp and the price of our paper, is the message that several newspapers have been sending Uncle Sam by way of editorials. The newspapers that have been advocating a two-cent coin are mostly metropolitan dailies that sell for two cents each.”

The article quoted an unidentified paper:

“A correspondent asks why the United States currency does not include two-cent pieces. Probably it will surprise the inquirer to know that there are over 28 million two-cent pieces now ‘in circulation’ in the United States.

“According to the Treasury records, there were 45,600,000 of these coins minted between April 22, 1864, when the two-cent piece was first authorized, and Feb. 12, 1873, when the issue was discontinued. Only about 17 million of these coins have been retired and melted for recoinage into cents up to the present time....

“The United States is the only large nation which does not have a coin in its national currency system comparable to the two-cent piece....

“It is somewhat singular that the United States, recognizing a two-cent standard in its postage rates, and accepting as fixed and standard a two-cent piece for purchases recurring with daily regularity, should leave a gap in its currency between the nickel and the cent and fail to serve the convenience of the public by an intermediate coin.

“It may not be desirable that the old two-cent piece be restored in size and bulk, but in more convenient form a two-cent piece would be a welcome addition to our subsidiary coinage. There would be plenty of use for it now.”

n 1916, the Pittsburgh Newspaper Publishers’ Association passed a resolution condemning the 2 1/2 and three-cent coin bills before Congress and urging the passage of legislation authorizing a two-cent piece. The Dec. 16, 1916, issue of The Fourth Estate said, “The Pittsburgh Press had its Washington correspondent go into the matter on the basis that there is a decided demand for the two-cent piece because of the fact that nearly all one-cent newspapers have increased their price to two cents.”

The Press’ Washington correspondent wrote:

“An almost country-wide demand for the resumption of the coinage of the two-cent piece is making itself felt in Washington. That Congress may enact legislation to put these coins in general circulation is regarded as a strong possibility.

“The popular demand for the two-cent piece seems to have been caused, for the most part, by the millions of buyers of daily newspapers. Nearly all of the papers in the country formerly selling for one cent have been compelled by the unprecedented high cost of newsprint to go to two cents.” The Mint director liked the idea of a two-cent piece, writing in a report:

“When you consider that we have no coin between the one-cent and five-cent piece, and that many an article worth more than a cent and less than five cents sells for the latter price because of the lack of an intermediary monetary unit of value, the economic importance of it may be readily seen....

“Of the two-cent pieces, there are 28,617,609 in hiding and for which the officials have never been able to account. If the holders of these coins would bring them out into the light of day, there would be almost enough again to start a very respectable circulation of them. But it is likely that most of them have, through exposure to the elements and other destructive processes, been entirely destroyed.”

After former President Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, there were calls for a Roosevelt two-cent piece. The Rough Rider probably would have been glad it never happened because he had opposed the use of “In God We Trust” on coins, and the two-cent piece was the first to have it.

Over the years, bankers and business people also asked the government to strike a 2 1/2-cent piece. The Aug. 11, 1910, issue of the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette found little merit in the denomination:

“‘The American people don’t think in pennies—they think in nickels and dollars.’

“‘The five-cent piece is about the lowest amount that is spent in this country nowadays.’

“With expressions such as the above, several Cedar Rapids bankers put their veto on the proposed coinage of a 2 1/2-cent piece when interviewed regarding the new coin suggested by William H. Short, the New York banker.”

In 1949, the American Institute for Intermediate Coinage revived the idea, but it was a lost cause.

When the wholesale price of gumballs increased in 1968, H.B. Hutchinson, president of the National Vendors Association, suggested lobbying for a two-cent piece. It may have been the last attempt to bring back the denomination.

The two-cent piece went down in history as one of the least successful U.S. coins. But it wasn’t a complete failure. It inaugurated the use of “In God We Trust,” simplified small purchases and even helped teach kids arithmetic. For today’s collectors, it’s a relic of Civil War and Reconstruction days, when troubled times gave rise to a new and unusual denomination that would still have many advocates a century later.

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