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Coin Of the Month

Uncovering America's Heritage... Coin by Coin

The Three-Cent Nickel

Here's a cool item from coin history:  the 3-cent nickel!  This coin, like the 1-cent nickel we looked at in August 2005, was called a nickel back in the day before the 5-cent nickel had been created.  So the penny was the first coin to be called a nickel (during the Civil War), then the 3-cent coin, then one year later, the 5-cent coin.  This was the shield nickel that I told you about in May 2002.

For a while, both the 3- and 5-cent coins were made with nickel.  I've drawn up a little chart to show when the various "nickels" were made.

Chart shows that a three-cent silver coin was made from 1851 to 1873, a one-cent nickel coin from 1859 to 1864, a three-cent nickel coin from 1865 to 1889, and a five-cent nickel coin from 1866 to the present.  Bars are used to show that the one-cent nickel was discontinued before the three-cent nickel was introduced, that the three- and five-cent nickel coins were introduced one year apart, and that both the silver and the nickel versions of the three-cent coin were in production together between 1865 and 1873.

The three cent coin was an easy way to pay the new 3-cent postage rate (lowered from 5 cents).  The first 3-cent coin was made of silver and some copper (as Peter explained in October 2005).  But the coins were so small that people called them "fish scales."  The coin, smaller than today's dime and weighing only 4/5 of a gram, was easy to lose.

When people hoarded coins during the Civil War, creating a shortage, the Treasury issued paper notes valued at between 1 and 50 cents.  These small notes were also easy to lose and hard to handle in large numbers.  The lowest paper denominations, which people called "shinplasters," wore out quickly.  Sometimes they circulated in tatters.

Enter the 3-cent nickel in 1865.

This copper-and-nickel coin was larger than the silver 3-cent coin and was easier to handle.  People could exchange their 3-cent paper notes for these "nickels" after the war.  What's more, 3-cent nickels were legal tender (which the one-cent coin was not).

As the chart shows, the nickel version was made for 16 years after the silver version was discontinued.  In 1883, the letter postage rate dropped to 2 cents, making a 3-cent coin less necessary, so the nickel version was eventually discontinued as well.

—Inspector Collector

Obverse:  A woman's head facing left wears a tiara labeled "Liberty." This example happens to be from 1880.

Reverse:  The large Roman numeral "three" sits inside a wreath tied with a ribbon.

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