Sunday, January 9, 2011

Obsolete Coins Flourished in the Nineteenth Century

We have all heard the expression “my two-cent’s worth.” What some people might not realize is that such a contribution could have actually been paid with a legitimate two-cent coin. In fact, the lineup of U.S. coinage has also included a half cent, three-cent coin, half dime and 20-cent piece.

Now dubbed “obsolete coinage” by numismatists, these coins served different purposes, primarily in the nineteenth century. Their history provides an interesting glimpse into American history.

A potpourri of English, Spanish and French coins and tokens circulated in the colonies. Also, in the seventeenth century there was a series of coins minted in Massachusetts, perhaps most notably one featuring a pine tree. Later, Virginia had a halfpenny.

During the Articles of Confederation period, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont were among those colonies issuing coins. But uniformity was needed under the Constitution, and in 1792 a mint was set up and legislation authorized seven non-gold and three gold denominations.

The half cent coin was minted with various designs between 1793 and 1857. “Large” cents—a little larger than today’s quarter—ran during the same period and were replaced with small cents for the next 155 years. Both of these early coins featured a female image of liberty and were made of copper.

The mid-nineteenth century saw most of the odd denominations. A two-cent piece was minted during the Civil War in response to a war-time shortage of coins. This demand decreased as mintage figures declined annually from its first-year total of nearly 20 million to only 65,000 eight years later. Notably, one side of this coin features a shield with a banner which states, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” This started a tradition on our coinage that continues to this day.

Between 1851 and 1889, the Mint also produced a three-cent piece. At first, these coins were silver; a mere 14 mm--about one-third smaller than today’s Lincoln cents--they were known as “trimes.” A new series, composed of less expensive copper and nickel, was launched in 1865 and continued on for nearly another quarter-century. Both versions of the coin had the Roman numerals “III” on the reverse.

The half dimes, worth one-twentieth of a dollar, were minted from the 1790s until 1873. Interestingly, these coins overlapped the mintage of the nickel for five years. The 1870s also saw the production of a 20-cent piece, which had “business strikes” for circulation for only two years. This coin was unpopular because it was much like a quarter.

Various denominations and designs also were reflected in gold coins, including a $3 gold piece and the highly-collectible $20 double eagles. But a full discussion of those coins should be reserved for another discussion.

Manifestations of history are reflected in many mediums, and coins and the study of them are one important and fascinating example. Throughout history images on coins have told us something about the society, and U.S. coins, many with images of liberty and reflecting changing monetary needs, are no exception.

For information on coin collecting, see the American Numismatic Association:

A leading numismatic publication is Coin World; see:

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