Ask Him for Change for a Half Dime — You Might Get a 3-cent Nickel Back

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, 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.