By Joe Darby
(Dear Readers. This is one of an occasional series of columns on stamps and coins. I hope to share my love for these hobbies with you. If you have questions email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on the Natchitoches Parish Journal site.)
When’s the last time you went searching through your pocket or purse in search of any interesting coins? Did you find any two-cent coins, a silver or nickel three-cent piece? How about a half dime, a penny the size of a quarter or that elusive 20-cent piece?
Now, some of you may be thinking: Hey, Joe, what are you trying to pull? The U.S. never had such coins. Finding a pre-1965 silver quarter or dime in circulation is difficult enough.
I would agree with the second part of that paragraph. Finding a silver coin in your pocket is very difficult but it has happened to me a couple of times in recent years.
As to the odd denominations I mentioned, well the good old USA has indeed minted such coins. But not for a long, long time.
One of our first coins, first minted in 1793, was a half-cent piece, about the size of today’s nickel. Sorry I don’t have one to show you. They are rare and not cheap.
We also minted pennies the size of a quarter, from 1793-1857, struck in pure copper. Take a look at my example from 1837. Andy Jackson was still president then, and that was when a penny was worth a penny! Though if you had too many they’d probably wear a hole in your pocket.
We’ve had some other interesting pennies since then but we’ll save those for another day.
Let’s take a look at another copper coin rarity, the two-cent piece. The federal government made these to help alleviate a shortage of small change during the Civil War. They were the first coins to bear the motto “In God We Trust.” About the size of a modern nickel, they were made from 1864-73. Notice my example from 1865. The motto above the shield is quite worn.
Then, there are the two three-cent pieces the U.S. minted. The rare silver coin, a tiny little thing much smaller than a dime, was made from 1851-73. It stuck around so long because also in 1851, the U.S. reduced the cost of its first-class postage stamp to three cents. They figured stamp buyers wouldn’t have to worry about change if they had enough three-cent pieces. See my example from 1851, first year of issue.
But, alas, the public tended to hoard the tiny silver coins so the government began minting a nickel three-cent piece in 1865. And although they were never particularly popular, they were issued until 1889. Note my coin, from 1865.
What we think of as a nickel (a five-cent piece) wasn’t issued until 1866. To meet the need for a five-cent piece before that, we had what was called a half-dime. It was a small silver coin first issued in 1794 and continued until 1873, using a variety of different attractive designs. I’m showing you the most common half-dime type called seated liberty. My coin is from 1857.
The final and rarest of the odd denomination coins is the 20-cent piece, minted only from 1875-78. I’m not sure why the powers-that-be thought we needed a 20-cent coin because we’d had 25-cent quarters from the beginning. The public complained immediately that the 20-cent pieces were too similar in size and design to the contemporary quarters, all with the seated liberty designs. Indeed, the 20-cent pieces were 22 millimeters and quarters were 24.3. See my example from 1875.
So, they were discontinued and aren’t inexpensive today.
Well, there you have it, a mélange of odd denomination U.S. coins that filled a need — or what the government thought was a need — many years ago. To hold these little gems in your hand is to touch the past.