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Copper Nickel Three-Cent Pieces Sometimes Passed as Dimes
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
June 11, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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Silver three-cent pieces were handy for buying postage stamps, but they were so small and thin they were difficult to strike and easily lost. A larger three-cent piece, struck in copper and nickel, arrived in 1865.

The May 22, 1865, issue of the Republican Compiler said:

“These new coins have made their appearance, and the Age says may be commended for their beauty. They are warranted not to tarnish.

“The new coin is a manifest improvement upon its smaller prototype. It bears on one side the head of the Goddess of Liberty, surrounded by the words ‘United States of America, 1865.’ On the reverse side, the numerals ‘III’ are enclosed in a wreath.”

Counterfeiting and mistaken identity made the new three-cent piece nearly as unpopular as the silver version. Mintages fell sharply in the late 1870s. Only proofs were struck in 1877 and 1878. The July 4, 1878, issue of the Allen County Democrat said:

“If you want an old-fashioned three-cent piece for a keepsake, now is your time to secure it. Postmasters have been instructed to take in the coins for postage and not reissue them. The government wants to get rid of this little nuisance.”

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Copper-nickel threes often passed as dimes. The Burlington Daily Hawk Eye reported in the 1870s: “The North Hill car driver is on the lookout for the man who put a three-cent piece in the fare box yesterday, and when he finds him, there won’t be a piece left of him as big as a three-cent piece in five minutes.”

It had been a rainy day when the deception occurred, leading the newspaper to say, “Dry feet at three cents a pair were decidedly cheap yesterday.”

In 1871, a three-cent piece was evidence in a murder case in Logansport, Ind. In its coverage of the trial, the Aug. 23, 1871, issue of the Democrat Pharos reported the victim’s wife was shown a pocketbook and currency and identified a three-cent piece “which she mended on Thursday morning, the day of the murder.” The police had found the three-cent piece in the suspect’s room.

In 1882, the Decatur Daily Republican reported that three-cent pieces were being hammered until they were the same size as a dime. The article described it as “the latest in small swindles.” A reduction in the postage rate to two cents in 1883 eliminated the only reason for striking three-cent pieces. The Sept. 8, 1883, issue of the Lowell Sun said:

“The three-cent coin, it is thought, will go out of existence almost contemporaneously with its mate, the three-cent postage stamp. It is believed at Washington that the Treasury will recommend to Congress that the coinage of the three-cent piece be stopped.

“The three-cent piece originated with three-cent postage, the impression being that the people would find it difficult to buy three-cent stamps without a three-cent coin.

“The piece has always been an annoyance, and is not in harmony with the general system of coinage, which is that of the decimal. Now that the three-cent stamp is to be supplanted by the two-cent stamp on Oct. 1, it is claimed there is no longer any reason for its existence. It is probable that the government, besides stopping the coinage, will call in and recoin those already coined.”

Despite the prediction, three-cent pieces remained in production until 1889, but in small quantities. In Fine-12 grade, common dates from the 1860s and early 1870s are valued at less than $20.

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