The Three Cent Nickel was produced from 1865 to 1889 and represented the second series for the odd denomination. All issues of the series were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, which produced more than sufficient output since the denomination proved to be less than popular with the public. With a single exception, mintage levels for the last decade of production were in the low thousands, and for three years of the series, coins were struck in proof format only. The series is now somewhat collected, although it is not as popular with collectors as some of the other series of the 19th century.
The three cent denomination had been introduced as a small, thin silver coin in 1851. The primary motivation for the denomination was to facilitate the purchase of postage stamps, which cost three cents at the time. Additionally, a small coin of intrinsic value would potentially improve the overall circulation of minor United States coinage in everyday commerce. At first, the three cent silver coins circulated, but the abundance of smaller silver coins from other countries prevented widespread use. The foreign silver coins would be banned from circulation in 1857, but soon thereafter the Civil War resulted in the hoarding of all silver coins, including the silver three cent piece. These circumstances led to the creation of a three cent piece struck in a different composition.
Both aluminum (still considered a somewhat precious metal at the time) and a copper-nickel composition were considered, but the choice soon was made for the latter without much experimentation. A bill was passed by both houses without much hassle on March 3, 1865, and production of a three cent piece struck in a composition of 75% copper and 25% nickel would soon commence.
The Three Cent Nickel was designed by James Barton Longacre. The obverse design featured a visualization of Liberty, facing left. Her hair is tied up and she wears a band inscribed with the word LIBERTY. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears surrounding the bust, with the date below. The reverse design includes the denomination expressed as the Roman Numeral “III” placed within a wreath. This simple yet elegant design would remain in place for the duration of the series.
According to some sources, the Three Cent Nickel was only intended to be a temporary issue, produced until the silver coins resumed circulation. The Mint Act of 1873, however, discontinued the three cent silver pieces. The three cent denomination would continue to be struck in nickel, although production levels would decrease through the 1870’s as circulation of the issue waned.
Together with the gold dollar and the related three dollar gold coin (introduced to facilitate purchases of 100, or a sheet, of three cent stamps), the three cent nickel was discontinued in 1889. It was the last of the small odd denominations (the others being the two and twenty cent pieces) to be eliminated, and few people noticed the change. The remaining coins slowly disappeared from circulation and today few members of the general public have an awareness of this odd denomination and its history.