Monday, June 8, 2009

Coin Monday: Odd as a $3 bill… or coin…

June 8, 2009
Posted by John Dale

Several of the so-called “odd denominations” that appeared in U.S. coinage during the 19th century, such as the two cent piece and the 20 cent piece, went from first year to finished in less than a decade. Others lasted longer, thanks to their initial usefulness, such as the three cent coin, which was struck in both silver and nickel. One odd denomination is memorable for how it managed to hang on for more than three decades, with coins coming out in tiny trickles each year long after it had outlived its usefulness: The $3 gold piece.

Though the $3 gold piece was created in 1854 and essentially stopped circulating at the onset of the Civil War, the denomination was produced through 1889, with only a law passed in 1890 stopping the madness.

Why was the $3 gold piece allowed to go on so long, even after it became meaningless as a circulating coin? In the most general terms, once a denomination has been created by law, it stays on the books and in production until it is later repealed. Thus, the two cent piece and the three cent piece in silver vanished together, due to their omission from the Act of February 12, 1873 (popularly known as the “Crime of ‘73”), which specified that coinage denominations not specifically listed could not be produced for the United States by the various mints. The 20 cent piece, created by its own law in 1875, was similarly struck down by a laser-focused law in 1878. Despite lack of interest in the $3 dollar gold piece that was evident even in 1873, when the Mint coined just 4,250 of the pieces for circulation, its status as a coin of the realm was reaffirmed that year. It was not until the Act of September 26, 1890, a “clean-up” act of sorts, that the three dollar gold piece, the three cent piece in nickel, and the gold dollar were purged from the books.

For that matter, why was the $3 gold piece created in the first place? There was already a gold coin of similar size, the quarter eagle (equal to two-and-a-half dollars), and the general public in the 19th century found about as many uses for the coins as collectors have today; that is to say, next-to-none. An often-floated idea is that the coins were intended to help customers buy sheets of 100 stamps (postage for a letter being three cents at the time), but stamp-buying as a reason for being seems too narrow. Paradoxically, the $3 gold piece enjoyed its greatest popularity in its last decade, when speculators and gift-givers snapped up the small quantity minted each year; even while it was still around, the denomination was regarded as a curiosity!

Still, both speculators and those who received the coins as gifts saved them, and as a result, low-mintage issues such as the 1889 are available in Mint State today. As our Summer FUN auction continues to grow, look for this and other examples of the three dollar gold piece, among the oddest of the odd denominations.

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-John Dale Beety

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