Guide to U.S. Nickel Three Cent Pieces
The Nickel Three Cent Piece was produced from 1865 to 1889 and represented the second series for the odd denomination. The years of production would overlap with the previous series struck in silver. The new composition had been introduced due to the hoarding of the silver three cent pieces during the years of the American Civil War. The mintages for the nickel counterpart would be high during the initial years of the series, but gradually decline to minimal levels. This culminated with three proof-only issues and several circulation strikes with mintages in the low thousands.
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, it was believed that a small coin of intrinsic value might improve the overall circulation of minor United States coinage. Although the three cent silver coins did circulate, the continued abundance of foreign silver coins prevented their widespread use. Even after foreign silver was banned from circulation in 1857, the economic uncertainty related to the American Civil War would change the landscape once again. During this time, all silver coins were hoarded by the nervous public, including the silver three cent pieces. These circumstances led to the creation of a three cent piece struck in a different composition.
Although aluminum had also been considered, a composition of copper-nickel was favored without much experimentation. A bill would be passed on March 3, 1865 authorizing the composition of 75% copper and 25% nickel. Production would soon commence for the Nickel Three Cent Piece with a design created by James Barton Longacre.
The obverse design features a representation of Liberty, facing left. Her hair is tied up and she wears a crown containing the word LIBERTY. The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appears surrounding, 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 Nickel Three Cent Piece was only intended to be a temporary issue, produced until the silver coins returned to circulation. Nonetheless, production would continue and outlast the silver version, which was discontinued under the Mint Act of 1873. The copper-nickel pieces would be struck for many more years even as production and circulation of the denomination declined. The denomination would finally be discontinued in 1889, along with the gold dollar and three dollar gold coin. Few people noticed the change and the remaining coins slowly disappeared from circulation, relegating this odd denomination to history.
The Nickel Three Cent Pieces were struck in proof format at the Philadelphia Mint for each year of the series. Mintage levels ranged from approximately 500 pieces to the mid-thousands. During three separate years, pieces were not struck for circulation but produced in proof format only.