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Unusual U.S. Coin Denominations for Collectors

  • The 2 cent piece was created to off-set Civil War coin shortages.
  • 3 cent coins were introduced specifically for buying stamps.
  • S. 20 cent pieces had the shortest minting period in American history.

Numismatics today involves more than just buying valuable coins. Understanding the world of paper currency, digital currency and the tokens people use to exchange goods around the world is all part of the appeal of the study. While the way the world views money is continuously changing, it is essential to have a foundational knowledge of significant trends in coin production throughout history. 

These unusual U.S. coin denominations are critical for collectors to study. They helped establish patterns in the creation of money that can be followed all the way to present day. While currency in the United States has been mostly standardized for several decades, these noteworthy events in coin production by the U.S. Mint include mintage of unconventional pieces such as the 2 cent coin, the 3 cent coin and 20 cent pieces.

Civil War-Era 2 Cent Coins

The U.S. Mint produced the 2 cent coin beginning in 1864 and continuing through 1873. It was an experiment of sorts authorized by the government in an effort to offset coin shortages caused by the Civil War. As the battles continued longer than anyone anticipated, American citizens began stockpiling currency as the availability of metal diminished. Minting 2 cent pieces took the same amount of resources to produce but carried twice the face value. The coins never found much popularity, partly because they provided no real convenience above and beyond the one-cent penny. After the Civil War, when stockpiled currency began to recirculate, use of 2 cent coins evaporated. 

The United States 2 cent pieces were made of 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc. It was the first coin to use the phrase “In God We Trust” as a component of the design. It was suggested by a minister who wrote a letter directly to the Secretary of the Treasury, claiming that including the phrase on coinage would give the country divine protection in uncertain times. The U.S. Treasury Secretary liked the idea and immediately added it to the obverse of 2 cent coins.

Silver 3 Cent Pieces

The U.S. Treasury introduced the 3 cent coin as a means for the American public to buy 3 cent stamps. Made from Silver, these coins featured a shield and six-sided star on the obverse. The reverse was struck with the Roman numeral III. The size was comparable to the dime, which confused merchants and consumers alike. This confusion hurt the popularity of the 3 cent piece, and when the Post Office changed the price of stamps, their need became utterly obsolete. The early coins from the series were made from .75 fine Silver, with the remaining 25% made up of Copper. 

Sometimes called “fish scales” because of their tiny size, the 3 cent coin was the smallest ever struck by the United States Mint. The series underwent multiple design changes during its relatively short lifespan. The Silver content was increased in 1854 to make the coin more popular. An olive branch was added above the shield to make the design more appealing, and adjustments were made to the Roman numerals as well. Mintage quantities also varied from year to year, making the 3 cent piece a particularly exciting subject in numismatics.

The Surprisingly Unpopular 3 Dollar Coin

In 1854, a meeting of the minds between Congress and the U.S. Mint led to the introduction of the Gold 3 dollar coin. Made from 1854 to 1889, the value was comparable to the already popular $2.50 Quarter Eagle. The idea was that the public would use the currency to buy 3 cent stamps in bundles of 100, but they did not. It seems that nobody wanted to carry the 3 dollar Gold coin and because of this lack of popularity, very few 3 dollar pieces were ever minted. This scarcity is good news for numismatists because demand for these coins is now far higher than when they were in production. The obverse design features a Native American princess with a feathered headdress, and the reverse carries a wreath of cotton, wheat, corn and tobacco, along with the face value of 3 dollars.

The Short-Lived 20 Cent Coin

The 20 cent coin has the shortest production life of any series made by the U.S. Mint. Struck for only three years, from 1864 to 1873, it was intended for circulation at first, with later mintings targeted at numismatic collectors. People were highly confused by similarities to the already well-circulated Quarter Dollar, and no practical use for the pieces was ever established. The government authorized the design to parallel the face values of European currency, making the monetary exchange more straightforward. That idea, however, did not have many benefits for most Americans. 

The original design for 20 cent pieces was approved in 1875, but revisions were requested almost immediately. An olive branch on the obverse was defined more clearly before the coins went into production. Most 20 cent coins were made at the Carson City Mint and the San Francisco Mint. It is estimated at approximately 40,000 pieces were produced at the Philadelphia Mint. Due to the failure to catch on with the American public, about one-third of all 20 cent coins minted were later melted down by the U.S. government.

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