There are two general kinds of three-cent U.S. coins. The first are the silver coins known as trimes among numismatists but called “fish scales” by mid-19th-century consumers due to their diminutive size. These were struck between 1851 and 1873. Three-cent nickel coins designed to replace the silver ones were minted between 1865 and 1889.
The introduction of trimes coincided with the lowering of postal rates from five cents to three. The coin was essentially conceived as a denomination to purchase this postage, which was important because the widely available copper large cents in circulation at the time were routinely refused by merchants, which made them understandably unpopular with the public. In addition, the majority of silver coins in circulation, foremost among them Seated Liberty quarters, were either being hoarded or melted for their bullion value, which was greater than their face value. Small trimes injected a much-needed supply of coinage into the economy.
The three-cent trime was designed by the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver, James Barton Longacre, who also created Flying Eagle and Indian Head cents, Shield nickels, and Liberty Head double eagles. There are three types of silver trimes, beginning with the Type I coins minted in Philadelphia and New Orleans in 1851, as well as those minted in Philadelphia in 1852 (the largest mintage) and 1853 (second largest). These feature a shield within a six-pointed star on the obverse and the Roman numeral III surrounded by a large “C” on the reverse. The composition of these Type I trimes is 75% silver and 25% copper.
Type II trimes were struck between 1854 and 1858. While their silver content was increased to 90% to bring them into line with other U.S. silver coins in circulation, their weight was reduced to discourage bullion speculators. To differentiate these coins from the Type I trimes, Longacre added two rims around the star on the coin’s obverse, as well as an olive branch and bunch of arrows within the “C” on the reverse.
Type III trimes were minted between 1859 and 1873 in far fewer numbers than the Type I and Type II varieties that preceded them. The Civil War was one reason, a period when metal of all type was scarce, making coins prime targets for hoarding. But after the war, the coin was minted concurrently with the nickel three-cent pieces designed to replace them. These featured Longacre’s engraving of Lady Liberty on the obverse and the Roman numeral III, surrounded by a wreath, on the reverse. These new three-cent coins would continue to be struck until 1889, although in generally fewer numbers after 1875. As for the overlapping Type III silver trimes? In 1873, about 74,000 of them, representing nearly all of the trimes produced for circulation between 1863 and 1873, were melted down by the U.S. Mint.
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