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Hail to the 'Thrip'
By Tom LaMarre, Coins Magazine
May 09, 2011

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The silver three-cent piece came into existence for the convenience of purchasing a single postage stamp. But the Mint had a hard time striking the tiny coins, which were easily lost and disappeared from circulation during the Civil War.

The larger, handier copper-nickel three-cent piece arrived in 1865. The government planned to use it to redeem the three-cent Fractional Currency notes that circulated during the war.

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The Act of March 3, 1865, authorized the copper-nickel three-cent piece. The law enabled the Mint director to determine the exact proportion of metals. However, the nickel content was not to exceed 25 percent. Copper-nickel three-cent coins were to be legal tender in “any payment to the amount of 60 cents.”

Engraver James B. Longacre designed the new coin. The Republican Compiler loved it. Under the headline “The New Three-Cent Pieces,” the May 22, 1865, issue said:

“These new coins have made their appearance, and the Age says they may be commended for their beauty. They are manufactured of nickel and copper, in such proportions that they are warranted not to tarnish.

“The new coin is a manifest improvement upon its smaller [silver] prototype. Being the size of a silver dime, it bears on one side the head of the Goddess of Liberty, surrounded by the words ‘United States of America.’ On the reverse side, the numeral ‘III,’ is enclosed in a wreath.

“Altogether it is a neat coin. But when silver comes to be circulated again, it is likely to create some confusion, unless the authorities change the size and style of the dimes.

“The Act of March 3, 1864, authorizing its issue, makes the piece a legal tender for all sums not exceeding 60 cents, and prohibits the further issue of fractional currency.”

Unlike the silver three-cent piece, which was known as a “trime,” the copper-nickel three-cent piece lacked a nickname. In 1842, however, an anonymous letter in the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin said that Dr. Riddle of the New Orleans Mint was working on an experimental three-cent piece called a “thrip.”

“With such a small coin, and with the present dimes and half dimes, any desirable change could be made in cents,” the writer explained. “Thus, to pay one cent, you can give two ‘thrips’ and take a half dime—or give a dime and take three ‘thrips.’ To pay four cents you give a dime and take two ‘thrips,’ and so on for any other change.”

However, the name never caught on, and maybe it was just as well.

The Philadelphia Mint struck more than 11 million copper-nickel three-cent pieces in 1865. Then came a downward trend. Annual production fell below the million mark in 1870 and reached it again in only 1873 and 1881.

Coin Prices lists the high-mintage dates in Very Good-8 grade at less than $20.

In his 1883 message to Congress, President Chester Arthur called for the elimination of the denomination. “The three-cent piece of the minor coinage resembles the silver dime so much in size and appearance as to be troublesome,” he wrote. “This more than offsets any convenience that might be claimed for a piece of this denomination. Provision should be made for its redemption and retirement by recoinage into five-cent nickels.”

A change in the postage rate eliminated any practical reason for striking three-cent pieces. The New York Times said the coins should “follow the leader” into permanent retirement.

The last three-cent pieces—amounting to fewer than 22,000—trickled from the press in 1889. Several attempts to revive the denomination were unsuccessful.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

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