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‘Trime’ Created after Political Battle
By R.W. Julian, Numismatic News
July 17, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Over the past few years there have been increasing concerns about the cost of issuing cents and nickels. Today, in 2013, it is reliably reported that each of these useful coins costs about double face value to make and distribute. The powers-that-be are investigating what needs to be done although the process is, as always, tied up with political considerations. The present situation is, to an amazing degree, mirrored by events connected with the coinage in the late 1840s and early 1850s.

During the 1840s the American monetary system was bimetallic, meaning that gold and silver were of equal importance. The system had been established under the basic mint act of 1792, but a series of problems with international exchange and foreign currency values had delayed full use of the concept until after new mint laws were passed by Congress in 1834 and 1837.

As late as 1847 the bimetallic system was working quite well and mints in the United States were well supplied with the necessary gold and silver bullion with which to strike coins for the marketplace. All of this was to change with the momentous discovery of gold early in 1848 on the Sutter Ranch in California. Those who found this treasure attempted to keep the matter quiet but this proved impossible and miners by the thousands soon headed for new El Dorado.

At the same time as the California bonanza, gold was also found in Australia in massive quantities; between the two the world economy was suddenly awash in gold, seriously affecting monetary systems that used both metals equally; only Great Britain remained above the fray as it had gone on the single gold standard before 1825.

In 1837 the United States had enshrined into law the ratio of gold to silver in the monetary system at 16 to 1, meaning that 16 ounces of silver were equal to one ounce of gold. In most of the European countries, excepting Great Britain, the ratio was not far from that.

At first there was little concern about the effects of the gold surplus and thoughts were solely directed towards creating additional gold denominations to soak up the bullion in the hands of brokers. To this end Congress created the gold dollar and $20 piece (double eagle) in March 1849. Coinage of the gold dollar began in May of that year but the double eagle was delayed until early in 1850.

By the summer of 1849 bankers and merchants began to sense that all was not well with the monetary system. Bullion brokers had begun on a small scale to buy up silver coins with gold; the brokers felt, and rightfully so as it turned out, that these silver coins could be sold at a profit in Europe as the gold surplus became more evident.

The small beginnings of silver being bought up by brokers gained strength throughout the rest of 1849 and into 1850. By the summer of 1850 an increasing number of complaints had found their way to the Treasury and Congress about the declining number of silver coins to be found in everyday usage.

As early as the fall of 1848 a congressional committee had begun to consider a three-cent piece made of billon, an alloy that contained less than half silver, the rest being copper. This was not in answer to the gold surplus but rather concern about the cost of the large copper cents; copper had risen in price during the late 1840s and by 1851 had even reached the point that the Mint occasionally lost money on this coinage.

The reason for billon being discussed by Congress was the realization that a silver coin worth only three cents would be very small. By making the alloy less than half silver it would be larger than the half dime, which was .900 fine.

Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, upon receiving a formal congressional request for sample billon pieces in mid January 1849, did as he was asked and arranged for patterns. These were sent to the committee in due course but the director also threw cold water on the idea by noting that counterfeiting of billon coinage would be a serious problem. According to Patterson the public would have difficulty distinguishing between an official billon coin and a silver-plated false piece.

Arguments made by Patterson when the patterns were sent apparently were listened to with care because Congress did nothing more in 1849 with respect to the billon proposal. If the director thought that was the end of the three-cent piece, however, he was mistaken.

There was another dimension to the question of patterns in 1850, however. There was a long-running feud at the Philadelphia Mint between Chief Coiner Franklin Peale and Chief Engraver James B. Longacre as to which of them had control over working and pattern dies. Those pieces struck for the congressional committee in early 1849 were in fact prepared under Peale’s direction but were rather simple pieces mostly made up from existing dies.

Additional pattern pieces were struck in the spring of 1850 for a congressional committee considering a bill for a three- cent piece. As with the 1849 discussions, nothing came of this effort either.

The low-key interest in Congress over the three-cent piece during 1849 and 1850 was paralleled by a lingering dispute over postal rates. The matter was politically motivated as major players wanted the credit for reducing such rates to benefit the general public.

In 1850 the rate for a single sheet of folded paper (envelopes were not generally used at that time) mailed to an address within 300 miles was five cents, a rate set in 1847 when the first regular postage stamps were issued. If the mail traveled more than 300 miles the cost was 10 cents. If two sheets of paper were used the rates were doubled.

To break the logjam Postmaster General Jacob Collamer suggested dropping the rate to only three cents for a single sheet of paper, regardless of the distance. This was of course popular with the public but Collamer had to sell the idea to Congress, which would have looked very closely at the costs involved.

The Postmaster General, in order to make his idea more palatable, approached Treasury Secretary William M. Meredith for help. He asked Meredith to suggest options for a three-cent silver coin, either of fine silver or even billon as had earlier been considered.

After consulting Mint Director Patterson and others, Meredith informed Collamer that a three-cent piece of debased silver, but not as low as billon, would be the best choice. The Treasury chief thought that the proposed denomination should be made from .750 fine silver, which meant that it would not be bought up by the bullion dealers.

While the plans were being finalized by Meredith and Collamer, the unexpected death of President Zachary Taylor on July 9, 1850, almost ended the project. The new President, Millard Fillmore, asked for – and received – the resignations of the two men, replacing them with his own choices for Treasury and Postmaster General, Thomas Corwin and Nathan Hall.

It took a few days for Corwin and Hall to master the intricacies of the postal debate and the three-cent coin and they soon pressed Congress with the same plans. They hit a snag, however, when several congressmen decided that they ought to have input into the new postal arrangement.

The original Collamer proposal, in tandem with Meredith, had called for a three-cent silver coin, .750 fine, with a legal tender limit of $30. This limit was a distinct change from current laws in that the regular silver coinage in 1850 had unlimited legal tender, perhaps one of the reasons for the difficulty in getting Congress to agree to the Administration proposal.

As if the dispute over legal tender was not enough, Congressman George Ashmun nearly derailed everything by introducing a bill for a two-cent postal rate, to be accompanied by a two-cent silver coin. Ashmun clearly had no idea how small such a coin would be and the consequent difficulties to be had by the Mint is striking such pieces.

Congressional leaders passed the word that the Ashmun proposal was dead in the water and should be ignored. Ashmun realized that he had been outflanked and gave up the fight for his two-cent rate.

Another congressman then decided that if two cents could not be obtained, his idea of two and one-half cents would be even better. The new suggestion, which did not get a pattern coin, was also scuttled by the House leadership, putting the emphasis back on the three-cent proposal. In early March 1851 Congress passed the necessary legislation, creating the new three-cent coin and postal rate. The bill was signed into law by the President on March 3.

The law being passed was perhaps easier than the situation at the Mint, where the feud between Peale and Longacre remained in full bloom. Longacre rightly felt that as chief engraver he should design and execute the necessary dies for the “Trime,” as the three-cent silver coin was now called by Mint officials. Unfortunately so did the chief coiner and he was backed by Director Patterson.

Knowing that Peale and Patterson, who had long been close friends, would seek to undermine his designs, Longacre had anticipated the new law and secretly sent samples to Treasury Secretary Corwin in February 1851, several weeks before the President signed the necessary legislation. Corwin sent the drawings to President Millard Fillmore who agreed with Corwin that the design should be accepted.

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Not long after sending the pattern pieces to Washington, Longacre showed his work to Dr. Patterson. Shortly thereafter Peale finished his entry and it was

sent to the Treasury with a covering letter from Patterson backing this new submission. Corwin replied towards the end of March that the Longacre entry had already been picked. The Treasury authorized coinage to begin as soon as Longacre was able to prepare the working dies. It did not take long to do so, coinage of the new denomination beginning early in April.

Director Patterson resigned his post at the end of June 1851, only a few weeks after losing the battle over the three-cent design. The official reason was ill health, which was in fact true, but the loss of prestige over the coinage design must have contributed to the decision. His successor was George Eckert, who was to superintend the three-cent coinage from that point in time.

Although striking of the trimes began soon after the design was approved, coinage was not as heavy in 1851 as might have been expected. The melter and refiner had considerable problems with the .750 fine silver as no one at the Mint had worked with an alloy of this kind. Many of the ingots had to be recast and rolled over. For this reason, and public unfamiliarity with the new denomination, only 5.5 million pieces were made at Philadelphia in 1851.

Some idea of the problem can be gained from the weight of the new coin, only .75 gram. This compares to 2.27 grams for the present clad dime. The dies often clashed and were damaged as a result, thus holding down coinage for yet another reason.

Treasury Secretary Corwin was also interested in there being a trime coinage at New Orleans. He urged Director Patterson to send the necessary dies to that mint as soon as possible, which was done, but in the end the effort was somewhat wasted as only 720,000 pieces were struck in 1851 and even many of these were on hand at New Orleans for several years.

Seven pairs of dies were sent to New Orleans but little use was made of them. At year’s end six of the reverses were held over for future use, the implication being that only one of the reverses had been used to strike the New Orleans trimes.

It is of interest to note that trimes were sent out from the Mint in bags of $30 (1,000 pieces), $60, $90, and so on. These numbers made it easier for Mint bookkeepers to keep track of shipments. Unlike the regular silver coinage, however, the trimes were struck only on government account, with all profits accruing to the Treasury.

With the technical problems solved, or nearly so, the Philadelphia Mint turned out some 19 million trimes in 1852. By then the shortage of silver coins was at the acute stage and the public eagerly snapped up the new coins. It is said that the public nickname was “fish scales,” though there may have been others. The mass coinage of trimes did not solve the coin shortage but it certainly helped.

The public acceptance of the debased trime pointed the way for Congress to reduce the weights of the regular silver coins in February 1853. It was thought, and correctly so, that a weight reduction of about six percent would keep the coins from being exported.

More than 11 million trimes were struck in the first three months of 1853, before the new law took effect, with none being struck the remainder of that year. The heavy coinage of half dimes through half dollars precluded press time being allotted to trimes. (Had trimes been struck later in 1853 they would have been of .900 fineness, the February 1853 law making this needed change.)

Trime coinage resumed, on a much reduced scale, in 1854 with a slightly revised design: an olive sprig is now found over the Roman numeral III and a bundle of three arrows is located below. Two outlines were added to the obverse star for a more artistic appearance.

The coinage of trimes was fitful from 1855 to 1858, but this had little to do with public demand. A new Mint director, James Ross Snowden, was so irritated by a provision of the 1853 law that stipulated minor silver coinage could be paid out only for gold, that he purchased silver bullion with the new coins, thus striking far more coins than were needed for the marketplace. Numerous complaints forced the Treasury to end this illegal practice in 1858.

Snowden responded at the beginning of 1859 by having Longacre redesign the trime for a second time, in the hopes that this would encourage public demand. It didn’t. The changes were minor, however, one of the star outlines being dropped.

The outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 caused the Treasury to order additional silver coins struck to forestall hoarding. The 800,000 trimes of 1861-1862, for example, were made for this reason but in the end nothing worked and the public hoarded, in June 1862, all of the silver coins that could be found. The trime never again widely circulated in this country.

Only a few thousand trimes were struck each year from 1863 to 1872, their use being to pay off odd amounts connected with deposits of gold or silver. Collectors who wanted specimens for their sets were forced to buy proof coins each year; in 1873 only proofs were struck and the denomination itself was abolished by a law passed early in the year.

Some trimes returned to circulation after 1873, when the government was able to put silver coins back into daily use, but the numbers were few and far between. Within a few years only the dedicated numismatist was left to appreciate how important the silver three-cent piece had once been.

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