Since its inception in 1792, the US Mint has produced several coins that are no longer in circulation. Some were too similar to other coins and caused confusion, others were unpopular and had little demand. And some simply fell victim to inflation, causing them to be of little practical use.
That’s the fate that befell several coins denominated in less than five cents as their usefulness faded. Here’s a look at them.
The Half Cent Copper: 1793-1857
In the late 1700s, a penny was worth about 25¢ in today’s money. That made half a cent a reasonable amount to charge for small items and a convenient denomination for making change. About 6 million half cents were made in five different designs until inflation led to their discontinuance in 1857. The coins were about the size of today’s quarter, and the few that remain are highly collectible.
The Two-Cent Billon: 1836
Billon is the term for an alloy of 90% copper and 10% silver. It was used to make a sample 2¢ coin called for in a Coin Act under consideration at the time. But the rising cost of silver and the ease of counterfeiting led to the coin never being produced for circulation, and the idea of a two-cent coin was dropped until it was revived in 1864.
The Two-Cent “French Bronze”: 1864-1873
When coin hoarding became a problem during the Civil War, Congress authorized production of 2¢ pieces made of an alloy of 95% copper with 5% tin and zinc added. Common in Europe, the alloy was known as French bronze. The coins were initially popular since other denominations were scarce. About 43 million were minted in the first two years, but demand dropped sharply after the war. The last coins for circulation were made in 1872, with 1,100 struck for collectors in 1873. Notably, it was the first US coin to carry the motto In God We Trust.
Several thousand coins survive with heavily worn samples available at affordable prices, especially in the higher mintage early years. Top-quality examples bring tens of thousands.
The Three-Cent Silver “Trime”: 1851-1873
This was the first US coin to contain less bullion than its face value. Originally 75% silver, it was increased to 90% in 1854. Roughly 36 million of the Type 1 75% silver coins were produced, most at the Philadelphia mint, but 720,000 were made at the New Orleans mint in 1851.
The small coins, known as “fish scales” became unpopular, and production dropped significantly after 1853. Large quantities were kept in storage and melted after the end of the Civil War. Many still survive, though, and heavily circulated samples can be had inexpensively. Rare mintages in excellent condition can go for well over $25,000.
Three-Cent Bronze and Aluminum Coins: 1863
These were experimental coins that never went into production. About 50 bronze examples are known to exist. Five aluminum samples have been confirmed. All are in private collections or museums.
The Three Cent Nickel: 1865-1889
With the hoarding of precious metal during the Civil War, Congress authorized a 3¢ coin made containing no silver. The 75% copper, 25% nickel coin proved popular initially, but when the 5¢ nickel coin was introduced in 1866, it rapidly fell out of favor. From an early mintage of over 17 million coins, production had fallen to fewer than 60,000 in its final three years.
The Three-Cent nickel has not been a popular coin with collectors. Good quality coins can be had for $15-20. Rarer dates, errors, and proof coins bring more, of course, and top-quality samples can run into tens of thousands.