Know your U.S. coins: Copper-nickel 3-cent

The war between the North and the South ended April 9, 1865. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Not exactly an auspicious backdrop for the introduction of a new U.S. coin denomination – the copper-nickel 3-cent coin – but one that links it forever to an important time in American history.

The need for a 3-cent coin was voiced as early as 1849 – before the introduction of the 2-cent coin in 1864 – when the Washington Globe made the following observation: "It would be an improvement in our currency, if there were a two-and-a-half or three-cent piece of silver, or of a mixture of silver and copper. There is everywhere in Spanish America a silver coin called a cuartillo, which is the fourth part of a real (12½ cents), the cuartillo being of course 3 1/8 cents. This is the smallest coin; and instead of a smaller, eggs are used in some places, and in others grains of cacao. A three-cent piece would be found to be very useful and convenient, as it would not then be necessary to use the copper cents to the extent they are now used, which though answering every purpose for which they were intended, are still heavy and inconvenient, and copper being very soft and very oxidizable, is not particularly well adapted for either tasting, smelling or handling.'" Others agreed in Washington with the Globe's logic. Congress debated and then on March 3, 1851, authorized a silver 3-cent coin. The first silver 3-cent coins were struck later that year.

But that was not the end of the push for a circulating 3-cent coin.

The story leading up to the striking of the copper-nickel 3-cent coin involves several players, most notably – a Mint director, a metallurgist/mining investor, and congressional leaders.

In 1863, during U.S. Mint Director James Pollock's first term, metallurgist James Wharton became interested in nickel. According to Don Taxay's The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Wharton was apparently encouraged by Pollock to undertake its extraction.

Rep. John Adam Kasson, R-Iowa, was an opponent of using nickel but eventually, due to the nationwide disgust with the paper fractional currency notes, he relented. Congress authorized production of a 3-cent coin in copper-nickel. The copper-nickel 3-cent coin, designed by James B. Longacre, was introduced in 1865. His obverse design features Liberty wearing a coronet with a ribbon in her hair. Longacre's theme of a coronet-crowned Liberty can be found in the Coronet gold dollar series of 1849-1854 and the Coronet $20 double eagle of 1850-1907.

There are some slight differences between the depiction of Liberty on the copper-nickel 3-cent coin and the gold dollar and double eagle. On the 3-cent coin, Liberty wears a ribbon in her curls in addition to the coronet. On the gold dollar, Liberty's curls stop at the base of her neck, while in the $20 gold piece Liberty's curls cover the back of her neck and the edge of the bust.

But despite the small changes, the essence of Longacre's regal personification of Liberty – as she appears on the 3-cent coin – remains the same.

The reverse design is a Roman numeral III with the same wreath as used on the 1859 Indian Head cent (also designed by Longacre, who frequently mined earlier coin designs when designing later issues).

The high mintage year for the copper-nickel 3-cent coin was 1865, when 11,382,000 were struck. Mintages for the copper-nickel 3-cent coin drop off for every year after that with the least amount of coins struck in 1884 with 1,700 and only 1,000 in 1884.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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