Did You Know that Nickel Three-Cent Pieces Were Introduced to Retire Three-Cent Fractional Notes?

As the nationwide coin shortage brought on by the Civil War worsened in 1862 and 1863, the federal government took drastic steps to provide a circulating medium of exchange. Fractional currency took the place of most denominations, as silver and later copper coins disappeared from circulation. The three-cent fractional note of the third issue was a particular target of public ire.

The concept of a “token coinage” – subsidiary coins with intrinsic values significantly below their face values – was embraced in the early 1860s, as Mint officials observed the willingness of the public to accept bronze cent-sized tokens in lieu of the copper-nickel Indian Head cent. This development, coupled with some aggressive lobbying from nickel mining interests in the person of Joseph Warton, resulted in the use of nickel for three denominations in the 1860s. After the copper-nickel cent was switched to bronze in 1864, the Mint struck two more denominations from a copper-nickel alloy: the three-cent piece (introduced in 1865 to retire the unpopular three-cent fractional currency denomination) and the Shield nickel (first struck for circulation in 1866).

While the silver three-cent piece had been introduced in 1851, it had never found a niche in commerce. By the time the nickel alloy denomination was introduced, mintages of its silver predecessor were on the decline. Bronze cents, two cent pieces, and nickel five cent pieces rendered the three-cent denomination obsolete/impractical by the late 1860s to early 1870s. Mintages fell through the 1870s and 1880s, culminating in the denomination’s retirement in 1889. Copper-nickel three-cent pieces are generally affordable, especially dates from  the 1860s and early 1870s.

Stack’s Bowers Galleries is offering a number of business-strike and Proof copper-nickel three cent pieces in the February Collectors Choice Online Auction. To view lots and bid, please visit

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