Uncovering America's Heritage... Coin by Coin
1871 Three-Cent Silver Coin
Coin denominations have stayed pretty much the same ever since the United States began making coins. But in 1851, a new denomination appeared: the silver 3-cent coin, also known as a "trime."
Why did we need this new coin? Trimes made buying stamps quite easy, because a stamp cost 3 cents. People liked this coin so much, in fact, that the same coin was made out of nickel later. Both the silver and the nickel versions circulated together for 9 years, yet they looked very different in both color and size. The silver trime was much smaller and harder to find...and not just because of its size (it's one of the smallest coins ever made by the United States Mint).
By the late 1850s, gold rushes in California, Colorado, and Nevada supplied new gold and silver for the nation's coins. So many coins were circulating that people thought small change was a big bother. But then a civil war was brewing between the northern and southern states, making the future uncertain. People began to hoard all the coins they came across, to export them, or to melt them down for their metal value. The river of small change quickly slowed to a trickle.
Pretty soon, coins were so hard to find that paper money was made in small-change denominations and stores had to make their own tokens (see the April 2001 Coin of the Month).
When silver trimes stopped being made in 1873, most of the silver trimes left at the Mint were melted so the silver could be reused. But few people noticed that there were no more silver trimes. After all, few had been seen since the early days of the Civil War, and the larger nickel trime took its place in 1865. Today, few people remember this teeny tiny coin. The silver trime gives new meaning to the phrase "small change"!